As we discussed in our blog A Closer Look at the Five Waves of 5G, business and technology leaders around the world are considering how they can use 5G’s faster data speeds, ultra-high reliability, very low latency, and other advancements to digitally transform their organizations. For example, though 5G networks are still being rolled out, many companies are already looking at how they can use 5G to develop new factory automation, self-healing energy grids, autonomous vehicles and other new types of IoT applications. However, those who are focusing only on 5G might be missing out on the fact that two Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) networking technologies also offer them opportunities to develop and launch transformative new IoT applications.
These two LPWA technologies — Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) and LTE Machine Type Communication (LTE-M, also known as eMTC) transmit data at rates slower than Long Term Evolution (LTE), and 5G New Radio (5G NR). But their low cost, high capacity, low power consumption, and wide coverage (the Four Cs of LPWA) make them well suited for a wide range of IoT applications – particularly Industrial IoT (IIoT) applications, including:
To help those who are unfamiliar with LPWA technologies (or need a reminder), we have developed this Q&A to answer some basic questions about NB-IoT – soon to be followed by an accompanying Q&A to answer similar questions about LTE-M.
We hope these Q&As will be useful to those of you seeking to better understand how you can use these LPWA technologies to deploy IoT applications that will allow you to lower costs, reduce equipment downtime, improve customer satisfaction, and launch new revenue generating services.
NB-IoT is a wireless telecommunications technology standard developed by 3GPP, the international standards body responsible for all major mobile telecommunications standards, including 4G standards like LTE and 5G standards like 5G NR.
NB-IoT uses the same sub-6 GHz wireless spectrum as the 4G LTE technology, but unlike 4G LTE and other previous wireless telecommunications standards, NB-IoT (along with LTE-M) was developed with the IoT in mind.
Both NB-IoT and LTE-M are designed to support IoT use cases that do not need very high data speeds but do require devices that are:
NB-IoT addresses the needs of many IoT use cases because it:
Yes. Cat-NB1, the first version of the NB-IoT standard, was introduced in 3GPP Release 13. This version of NB-IoT delivers downlink peak data rates as fast as 26 kilobits per second (kbps) and uplink peak data rates up to 62 kbps, with a latency ranging from 1.6 to 10 seconds.
Cat-NB2, the newest version of NB-IoT, was introduced in 3GPP Release 14. Cat-NB2 increases NB-IoT’s peak downlink data transfer speed to 127 kbps, and its uplink peak data rate to 150 kbps. 3GPP Release 14 also introduces advanced positioning technologies for NB-IoT such as OTDOA (Observed Time Difference of Arrival) and E-CID (Enhanced Cell ID), both of which improve location accuracy.
In addition, 3GPP Release 14 brings the Radio Resource Control (RRC) connection re-establishment feature to NB-IoT devices. This feature allows NB-IoT devices to transfer their cellular connection from one cell to another cell as the device moves between cells, without having to start this transfer process over again if the device experiences a radio link failure (i.e. a drop). RRC makes it possible to use Release 14 NB-IoT devices for pedestrian, bicycling, and similar types of mobile applications.
Though similar in many ways, there are some important differences between NB-IoT and LTE-M.
LTE-M provides faster data rates than NB-IoT, as well as lower latency (the amount of time it takes for a device to connect to a network and send or receive a message). These capabilities allow LTE-M to support voice communications in addition to data communications, as well as IoT applications (like precision tracking or power grid control) that need more real-time communications. In addition, LTE-M provides much better performance for mobile IoT applications than NB-IoT, despite the mobility upgrades found in Cat-NB2.
LTE-M’s faster speeds also make it better for more data-intensive IoT applications. Additionally, LTE-M, as a natural extension of 4G LTE, benefits from out-of-the box roaming, i.e. the ability to use a SIM card from a network operator on another operator’s network abroad.
However, NB-IoT does have some advantages over LTE-M. Though both LTE-M and NB-IoT provide better coverage than other technologies, most network operators have deployed NB-IoT networks with technologies that deliver the best possible coverage improvements, and LTE-M networks with technologies that provide only partial coverage improvements. In the real-world today, this leads to NB-IoT networks providing better coverage than LTE-M in warehouses, office buildings, and underground locations where signal loss and multiple layers of obstruction can lead to connectivity problems.
These advantages make NB-IoT a great choice for simple, static, very low-data IoT applications.
NB-IoT is well suited for IoT use cases where high data rates, low latency, and high mobility are not required, but low cost, strong coverage, very extensive capacity, and low energy consumption are.
Examples of such simple, static, low-data, low-energy use cases include:
NB-IoT and LTE-M were initially developed for the 4G LTE standard. However, 3GPP, the standards group responsible for 5G as well as the NB-IoT and LTE-M standards, has made NB-IoT and LTE-M part of the 5G standard. In fact, they are the only standards that 3GPP plans to support for LPWA use cases, which require low cost, low power, high capacity, and low energy consumption. In addition, just as NB-IoT and LTE-M can operate in band with LTE technologies, so can they also operate in band with new 5G technologies, like 5G New Radio (NR).
Additionally, Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS), a new capability delivered by 5G NR, enables operators to use the sub-6 GHz wireless spectrum currently used by 4G LTE, NB-IoT, and LTE-M for 5G NR as well. While many have focused on how DSS will accelerate the roll-out of NR by expanding the amount of spectrum this new technology can use, DSS will also ensure that Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) continue to support NB-IoT and LTE-M technologies for years to come.
Because 4G LTE, NB-IoT, and LTE-M can share the sub-6 GHz spectrum they currently use with NR, operators do not need to sunset or stop supporting 4G LTE, NB-IoT, and LTE-M technologies in order to use this spectrum both for 4G LTE, NB-IoT, and LTE-M, and also for NR technologies.
According to this list from the GSMA, an industry organization that represents the interests of MNOs, 103 NB-IoT networks have been deployed around the world as of February 2021.
In addition, this map from GSMA shows that national NB-IoT network coverage is available today in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, China, Australia, South Africa, and most of Europe.
Though all NB-IoT modules are based on a common technology standard, modules vary significantly between vendors. When evaluating which module to integrate into your IoT application, some good questions to ask include:
The websites and reports listed below can provide you with more information on NB-IoT, and how it can be used for a wide variety of different IoT applications:
You can also read or view some of our white papers, blogs, contributed articles, webinars, and other Sierra Wireless materials to learn more about NB-IoT, how it is different from LTE-M, and how both of these LPWA technologies enable companies to deploy transformative new industrial, smart city, smart home, and agriculture IoT applications.
In addition, Start with Sierra by contacting us directly to talk about your IoT application, and how our WP7702, HL7800 and HL7802 modules and other LPWA solutions can help you use this application to unlock value in today’s connected economy.
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