LTE-M and NB-IoT: The right technology for your IoT project

High data rates are not essential for many IoT devices, such as sensors. Energy-efficient and stable connections are much more important. This is made possible by so-called LPWAN (Low Power Wide Area Network) such as LTE-M and NB-IoT.

With LTE-M and NB-IoT, IoT devices are fit for the future

Classically, the 4G and 5G network generations are associated with fast broadband networks. However, these high data rates are not absolutely necessary for many IoT devices, such as sensors. Rather, what matters is energy-efficient and stable connections. This is made possible by so-called LPWAN (Low Power Wide Area Network). To meet these special requirements, many network operators have implemented the LPWAN standards LTE-M and NB-IoT in their network frequencies. While the 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G networks are also used intensively in the consumer sector, the LTE-M and NB-IoT network has been developed specifically and exclusively for IoT applications.

Despite all the similarities between LTE-M and NB-IoT, there are nevertheless crucial differences between these standards. In this article, we want to examine these and highlight for which use cases which standard is particularly suitable. Network coverage for LTE-M and NB-IoT varies greatly from region to region and roaming agreements do not already exist for all operators. In some networks, LTE-M and NB-IoT currently also work via roaming within the scope of normal network coverage. However, permanent availability can only be guaranteed by a corresponding roaming agreement.

What distinguishes LTE-M?

LTE Cat M1, LTE-M for short, is the abbreviation for Long Term Evolution for Machines. The technology is based on the 4G network, but is also implemented in the 5G network. In contrast to the normal LTE network, where download speeds of 25MBit/s - 50MBit/s are normal, LTE-M comes up to 1 MBit/s in download and upload. This speed is not sufficient for larger data volumes, such as video transmissions. However, it is sufficient for transmitting smaller data packets from sensors. Another goal of LTE-M is to reliably network devices that are difficult to reach, for example in basements or remote areas. To achieve this, data packets are transmitted several times. If the end device does not receive the data once, LTE-M offers further attempts to receive the packets.

Typical latency for LTE-M is around 15-30 ms, which is similar to the latency of standard LTE. With LTE-M, it is possible to switch from one radio cell to the next without any problems. This makes this technology suitable for mobile, non-static applications. In addition to data services, LTE-M also allows the use of voice services and SMS. Since the development of LTE-M was first pushed in North America, the network coverage in America is particularly good.

What is special about NB-IoT?

Narrow Band IoT (NB-IoT) is another standard implemented by many network providers in the 4G and 5G network. The introduction of NB-IoT networks first started in the European area. Therefore, NB-IoT is currently the most widespread LPWAN technology, especially in Europe.
The data rates for NB-IoT are particularly low. In the downlink, the data rate is just 26 Kbit/s, and up to 66 Kbit/s in the uplink. With several seconds of latency (up to 10 seconds), there is also a long delay between sending and receiving data. This already shows that NB-IoT is not suitable for applications where reaction times are important. For example, if you wanted to control a garage door, it would only open after a noticeable delay. When measuring nitrogen levels, for example, every second is not important, so NB-IoT would be well suited for transmitting data here.

What is the best technology to use?

As you can see, the technical specifications are different. Depending on the application scenario, LTE-M or NB-IoT may be more suitable for your project. For example, if you want to operate smartwatches or equip vehicles with trackers that are tracked live, then you should consider LTE-M. If you are using static devices such as heating thermostats or weather stations, then NB-IoT would be the better choice. In particular, the good penetration and even higher energy efficiency should be an advantage here. Due to the higher bandwidth in the LTE-M network, this technology is also suitable for use cases that are designed for growth. With NB-IoT, the bandwidth is quickly exhausted. However, if your sensors are to transmit more data in the future, you need a technology that allows for scalability, which LTE-M provides. This also applies to software updates, which can be easily transferred via LTE-M, whereas this could be difficult with NB-IoT.

Some LTE-M and NB-IoT networks are already available with your wherever SIM . For more information or questions about network coverage, please contact our sales team.

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