Sensors and software applications embedded in everyday objects—the Internet of things (IoT)—have brought tremendous benefits to rural villages and agriculture in India. But there are challenges in connectivity and infrastructure. Satellite-based networks can bridge the connectivity gap in remote areas but can be expensive because of the equipment required by both consumers and producers.
Narrowband (NB)-IoT technology may help bridge the gap between inaccessible areas and the benefits of Internet connectivity. As its name implies, NB-IoT uses a single, narrowband frequency (200 kilohertz), which limits transmission rates but allows many users to simultaneously connect over a wide area. The technology is low-cost for users and works on almost any mobile phone.
Improving Efficiency in Farming and Fishing
TV Prabhakar, principal research scientist in the Department of Electronic Systems Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, noted that NB-IoT is a fairly new technology, widely available within only the past several years. Prabhakar has published extensively on issues surrounding access to IoT devices.
Although currently available only for commercial use, Prabhakar said the accessibility of NB-IoT will allow it to expand easily to consumers “because it is a technology that can work with traditional voice-only as well as [with] the evolution to 3G/4G/5G technologies,” he explained.
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 transmit 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, director of products at Skylo, a tech start-up in the NB-IoT sector with deployment 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 decide the proportion of fertilizer based on the soil health care report.”
The fisheries industry has also started making use of NB-IoT technology. Many fisherfolk in India still use traditional one-way shipboard radio, which works only up to 20 nautical miles. With satellite-based NB-IoT technology, however, fisherfolk “can now venture out into the sea with the knowledge that in any distress situation, they are just an SOS away. The SOS is delivered by…platform connectivity to coast guards or nearby boats,” said Iyengar. The service also allows them to receive timely weather alerts after they’ve left shore.
Skylo Hub is an easily portable, 20-centimeter block that transmits real-time data using NB-IoT. The breakthrough technology was launched in partnership with India’s government-owned telecommunications provider, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), and is now bringing affordable satellite connectivity to remote areas around the country.
Skylo Hub integrates a digital satellite antenna and modem to establish a link with a satellite (owned by Inmarsat, a London-based mobile communications company); an IoT gateway that communicates with external sensors; and a modified NB-IoT chipset to gather 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 that you see outdoors in India—extreme heat, extreme cold, very heavy rainfall,” said Iyengar.
Robin Bhawan Nakhawa, a Mumbai-based boat owner, opted for NB-IoT technology on one of his two boats last year. When the boat had an accident at sea that broke the propeller, the fisherfolk on board were able to notify him immediately through the NB-IoT platform.
“I sent my other boat and got the propeller repaired in 2 days,” Nakhawa said. “Without [the] technology, the boat would have been stranded for many days.”
Nakhawa said the technology also has helped his business in other ways. Rising ocean temperatures have changed the distribution of fish populations in the Indian Ocean, forcing fisherfolk to spend a lot of time searching for fish-rich regions. “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] money and improve our fish catch,” said Nakhawa. Not only can they improve their catch, but they can get more for it: The capability of alerting those on shore about the details of their catch while still far out at sea gives them more time and leverage in negotiating market prices.
NB-IoT devices like Skylo Hub are part of a slowly expanding universe of technological efforts to bring greater access to real-time information to rural and other communities that lack reliable connectivity through relatively low cost setups. There are hurdles to the infrastructure: Cellular NB-IoT still needs to connect with an established network provider, so it is available only in places where such a provider supports the technology.
A key limitation to expanding the scope of NB-IoT is that the technology allows for only small amounts of data to be transferred. It can be used only in devices supplying straightforward information such as location and cannot be used for video streaming or audio calls.
—Deepa Padmanaban (@deepa_padma), Science Writer
11 November 2021: This article has been updated to correct the relationship between Skylo and BSNL, and clarify the reach of NB-IoT technology.