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I read Paula Jones’ recent blog post about NB-IoT applications, and it led me down the rabbit hole: what is narrowband IoT, and why are companies using the Cadence Fusion DSP IP in applications that use it?
IoT is the internet of things, which includes everything from mobile phones to smart refrigerators to sensors on cars to industrial equipment to anything, really, that is connected to the internet. The IoT-connected devices in 2018 now number more than 23 billion devices and is predicted to grow at a steady pace with no lag in sight.
These sensors/devices are connected to the cloud through a variety of methods: cellular, satellite, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, low-power wide-area networks (LPWAN), or connecting directly to the internet via ethernet.
Each connectivity option represents a tradeoff between power consumption, range, and bandwidth. Just as the dressmaker who said, “you can get your new dress fast, pretty, or cheap,”—you gotta pick two attributes out of three.
So the options are:
An example of this is your smartphone. You can download a ton of information over a short amount of time, from practically anywhere in the world (depending on whether you are close to a cell tower or have a satellite phone), but you have to charge it every day. This is not very practical for, say, the medical device that simply cannot run out of power.
So to decrease power and still send lots of data, you have to decrease the range. This includes your family Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Ethernet: basically, it only works as long as the wire that connects to it, so it’s good for home or work computing—or putting a little device into your ear to connect to your phone. But as you know from walking around your house or getting out of your car while you’re on a phone call, the range is limited! Again, great for what it’s used for, but is not practical for lots of applications.
The final solution is to decrease the amount of data that must be sent. Connectivity options in this group are LPWANs. LPWANs send small amounts of data which allows them to operate at very low power with a high range—measured in miles rather than feet. For example, a moisture sensor for agricultural purposes doesn’t need to send a lot of data—perhaps just a single number (the moisture level) every few hours. You also don’t want this sensor to consume a lot of power because it needs to run on battery (plugging it into an outlet in the middle of a field just isn’t realistic). And since agriculture covers a wide area, WiFi and Bluetooth lack the range.
No matter the connectivity option you use, applications must conform to a certain standard, or “language” so the sender and receiver can communicate. When you’re talking about connectivity, 4G and LTE are the buzzwords you’ll hear; and in the interest of brevity, they’re interchangeable enough to use the same terminology. (More information about the differences between the two is here.)
In a nutshell, 4G is the standard that was decided by the International Telecommunications Union-Radio (ITU-R), which created the standard in March 2008, which means that the peak download speed should be 100Mbit/second when you’re moving fast (like in a car or train), or, when stationary, around 1Gb/sec. (This is more of an ideal than a reality, but it’s the goal.) It works from 600 to 5200MHz.
LTE is the first generation of 4G technology, and it has become the standard that is used across the backbone of most connected phones in the world.
(I won’t go into the proposed 5G standard, which is right around the corner, but know that it’s coming sooner rather than later!)
Narrowband IoT (also known as NB-IoT or LTE-M2) is a proposed LPWAN (remember—low power, high range, low bandwidth) standards technology that won’t operate using the LTE standard. Instead, it’s designed to exist in one of three ways:
NB-IoT significantly improves the power consumption of user devices, system capacity, and spectrum efficiency, especially in deep coverage. Battery life of more than 10 years can be supported for a wide range of use cases.
The benefits to using NB-IoT are obvious: power savings, reliability, and the ability for wider deployment and global reach. And the biggest benefit, cost savings, can result because of the lower power usage, not to mention that NB-IoT chips are simpler to create and will thus be cheaper.
Where can this be used? Pretty much everywhere that could possibly use an LPWAN:
In short, NB-IoT is kind of a big deal, as shown in the recent Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Shanghai, where it was one of the words that came up a lot.
As Paula mentioned in her blog post, three of Cadence’s customers used Tensilica Fusion F1 DSP demos on the show floor of MWC. This is exciting because the Fusion F1 DSP requires ultra-low power and has a tiny footprint—which is perfect for NB-IoT applications. As this market grows, we expect usage of the Fusion F1 DSP in those applications that use this standard to grow along with it.
And that’s why you should care about NB-IoT.