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NB-IoT: the tech that will change the global supply chain

30 Jun 2020
Erik Brenneis

Erik Brenneis

IoT Director, Vodafone Business

Networks are an ecosystem.

In any structure, the connection between elements is what provides the strength. Buildings, bridges and aeroplanes are all made of different components that together form a solid and resilient, yet flexible, structure built for efficiency.

Mobile networks are a great example of this. Cell towers connect with each other forming a regional grid and then link-up with other local operators to create a global network that makes communications possible anywhere.

Air travel might seem like an elusive dream at the moment, but we all know the feeling of landing somewhere, turning on our phone and waiting for the text that welcomes us to the local network. To make this possible operators had to set-up complex technical arrangements and establish shared standards, to ensure the process was seamless and consistent for all users.

In 1992, the first international roaming agreement was signed between Vodafone and Telecom Finland, only three years after the GSM standard had been created. The importance of a shared standard to allow mobile networks to talk to each other across borders was clear back then. The future was global and networks had to be ready to support this.

Almost 30 years on, the world is more integrated than ever and mobile networks connect not just people, but also millions of connected devices that make up the Internet of Things (IoT).

Connecting things

Like mobile phones, IoT devices need to work anywhere, with the same quality of service, no matter where they are located.

It is logical to expect the connectivity experience to be seamless and secure, wherever the items shipped around the world end up. Devices can’t call a help desk if they can’t connect, or pop round the corner where they may get a stronger signal.

This is why we are constantly expanding our ecosystem of networks, roaming partners and platforms, to provide a global IoT service that today supports more than 100 million devices in 39 countries.

The future of supply chain

During the Covid-19 crisis, people largely stopped travelling, but goods and assets had to continue to flow across the globe.  

This has highlighted both the benefits and risks of the global supply chain, in particular the challenges regarding the integrity of the chain and its ability to adapt to unexpected circumstances.

Organisations are now reassessing their supply chain reliance and, as this happens, we believe the supplier base will change. The supply chain might also shorten to allow organisations to switch to different supply routes depending on differing external factors, helping it to become more resilient.

These changes will make supply chains far more dynamic and will require businesses to have visibility at a much more granular level than ever before. And not just to check exchange points are staffed efficiently, but also to ensure goods arrive in perfect condition.

Having worked on asset tracking for years, we already help companies track the status of their high-value goods, like cars, or even plane engines, internationally.

But what about the millions of other products that flow through the supply chain – they may be low value, but they are still essential to keep food on the shelves, fuel in the pumps and factories running.

How can these be tracked and traced on an international basis in a way that is automated, simple and cost effective?

The honest answer is that until recently at least, it was difficult. Now the combination of low power, wide area networks (LPWA) and integrated SIM (iSIM) makes it possible.

Great alone, better together

Low power networks, like NB-IoT and CAT-M, provide low-cost communications and high-signal penetration underground and in buildings. Unlike 4G or 5G, they can’t carry much data, but this also means they also don’t need much energy to keep the asset connected, making them ideal for battery-powered IoT devices.

Until now, LPWA technology has mainly been used for tracking and monitoring fixed assets within national boundaries, like water and gas meters.

With the launch of iSIM, however, low power network technologies have the potential to revolutionise what and where business can connect using IoT devices.

iSIM: the game-changer

An integrated SIM (iSIM) is designed into the device using it. iSIM puts connectivity at the core of products from the design stage, so they can be manufactured with connectivity built-in at a much lower cost, thanks to the reduced number of components.

NB-IoT then provides the network to connect, with its low power consumption and high signal penetration indoor and outdoor, so it works anywhere. They’re the ideal match: connectivity and iSIM technology. Together they make it cheaper, simpler and easier to connect devices.

But one element is still missing. And it’s scale.

Without global access to the network, the potential of LPWA and iSIM would be wasted. Global connectivity is what makes it possible for goods and assets to be tracked internationally.

And this is why we are building the world’s largest roaming footprint for NB-IoT, with 10 roaming agreements already in place and new partnerships regularly announced. We want our customers to be able to tag, track and easily report on their shipments across the globe.

NB IoT agreement with Deutsche Telekom

NB IoT agreement with Deutsche Telekom


From big to massive

The synergy of global roaming, low-power networks and iSIM unleashes the power of the connected supply chain, allowing logistics networks to become smarter, more secure and more responsive to rapid changes in supply and demand.

I believe as these three elements come together, they create a unique opportunity for businesses to re-think and revolutionise the way they manage and optimise their supply chains. 

NB-IoT is set to become the connectivity of choice for any company wanting to monitor and track goods and products internationally. We are proud to be part of the efforts to make this network technology a shared standard for the future of an even better and more digitally connected world.

Find out more about the iSIM and how it’s going to transform the supply chain here.


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