Sensors and software applications embedded in everyday objects – the Internet of Things (IoT) – have delivered huge benefits to rural villages and agriculture in India. But there are connectivity and infrastructure challenges. Satellite-based networks can bridge the connectivity gap in remote areas, but can be expensive due to the equipment required by both consumers and manufacturers.
Narrowband (NB) IoT technology can help bridge the gap between inaccessible areas and the benefits of internet connectivity. As the name implies, NB-IoT uses a single, narrowband frequency (200 kilohertz), which limits transmission speeds but allows many users to connect simultaneously over a wide area. The technology is cheap for users and works on almost any mobile phone.
Improving efficiency in agriculture and fisheries
TV Prabhakar, principal investigator in the Department of Electronic Systems Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, noted that NB-IoT is a fairly new technology that has only become widely available in recent years. Prabhakar has published extensively on issues surrounding access to IoT devices.
While it’s currently only available for commercial use, Prabhakar said the accessibility of NB-IoT will make it easy for consumers “because it’s a technology that works with both traditional voice-only and [with] the evolution towards 3G/4G/5G technologies,” he explains.
NB-IoT works with existing satellites and mobile cellular networks, both of which are widely available in India. “Farmers and fishermen can use their mobile phones to receive and send messages, without any special skills,” Prabhakar said.
For example, farmers monitor soil and crop health to ensure good yields, but this can be a labor-intensive effort. With NB-IoT technology and appropriate sensors, farmers can monitor conditions such as soil moisture, nitrogen and phosphorus in real time through their phones.
“Farmers can receive alerts through the mobile application,” said Prasanna Iyengar, product director at Skylo, a tech start-up in the NB-IoT sector with implementation teams in India and the United States. After receiving a notification, farmers can then “use these alerts to take action, such as turning on a water pump for irrigation. They can also determine the proportion of manure based on the soil health report.”
The fishing industry also uses NB-IoT technology. Many fishermen in India still use the traditional one-way onboard radio, which only works for up to 20 nautical miles. However, with satellite-based NB-IoT technology, fishermen can now take to the sea knowing they are just an SOS away in any emergency. The SOS is provided by… platform connectivity to coastguards or nearby boats,” Iyengar said. The service also allows them to receive timely weather alerts after they leave the coast.
Skylo Hub is an easily portable 20 centimeter block that transmits real-time data using NB-IoT. Launched in partnership with Indian government-owned telecommunications provider Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), the breakthrough technology now brings affordable satellite connections to remote areas of the country.
Skylo Hub integrates a digital satellite antenna and modem to establish a connection to a satellite (owned by Inmarsat, a London-based mobile communications company); an IoT gateway that communicates with external sensors; and a custom NB-IoT chipset to collect and evaluate data from those sensors. It sends updates and alerts to a mobile app.
“The Hub is a plug-and-play integration, designed for the environment you see outside in India: extreme heat, extreme cold, very heavy rainfall,” says Iyengar.
Robin Bhawan Nakhawa, a boat owner from Mumbai, chose NB-IoT technology on one of his two boats last year. When the boat had an accident at sea where the propeller broke, the fishermen on board could immediately notify it via the NB-IoT platform.
“I sent my other boat and got the propeller repaired within two days,” Nakhawa said. “Without [the] technology, the boat would have been stranded for many days.”
Nakhawa said the technology has helped his company in other ways as well. Rising ocean temperatures have changed the distribution of fish populations in the Indian Ocean, forcing fishermen to spend a lot of time searching for fish-rich areas. “We had to spend a lot on diesel [fuel] for the boat. But now with data on potential fishing zones… we can save time [and] make money and improve our fishing,” said Nakhawa. Not only can they improve their catch, but they can get more for it: the ability to alert those ashore to the details of their catch while they are still far out at sea gives them more time and leverage when negotiating market prices.
NB-IoT devices like Skylo Hub are part of a slow-growing universe of technological efforts to provide greater access to real-time information to rural and other communities that lack reliable connectivity due to relatively inexpensive setups. There are infrastructure hurdles: Cellular NB-IoT still needs to connect to an established network provider, so it’s only available in places where such a provider supports the technology.
A major limitation in expanding the scope of NB-IoT is that the technology can only transfer small amounts of data. It can only be used in devices that provide clear information, such as location, and cannot be used for video streaming or audio calls.