As the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to revolutionise the use case landscape of technology, the necessity for suitable communication technologies becomes increasingly pivotal.
Two major wireless standards and industry stakeholders in this arena are Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) and Long-Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN).
Both offer unique advantages and potential shortcomings, making the choice between them a critical decision for many low-power, static IoT operations.
This post aims to delve into the significant differences between NB-IoT and LoRaWAN, thereby providing an in-depth analysis to aid you in identifying the optimal solution for your use case and IoT project requirements.
What is NB-IoT?
Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) is a low-power, wide area network technology that provides longer range coverage for IoT devices by virtue of its lower radio transmission frequencies/wavelengths.
It operates as an add on to the 4G and 5G GSMA standards, enabling integration with mobile network operator’s networks where the supporting infrastructure has been implemented, with minimal interference and a secured data transmission protocol.
This also means that the technology relies upon a core mobile network to transmit data to the internet.
Since NB-IoT is built upon existing LTE infrastructure, it can provide much wider coverage than other low-power wide area network technologies (LPWAN), such as LoRaWAN if the technology is installed at the radio base station level.
What is LoRaWAN?
LoRaWAN (Long Range Wide Area Network) is a protocol and technology for wireless communication of low-powered devices over wide area networks.
This technology also leverages longer wavelength radio waves, which enables longer-range connectivity for IoT devices, aiding in connecting sensors over longer distances and enabling lower power consumption for IoT sensor devices.
Unlike NB-IoT, LoRaWAN operates in an unlicensed spectrum, meaning it doesn’t rely on traditional mobile networks for connectivity.
However, this means that it relies on private, unlicensed networks which might not be as ubiquitously available or rely on non-standard private edge gateway infrastructure.
If LoRaWAN networks are available, they can prove cost-effective but also means they may face interference from other devices operating in the same frequency spectrum or be subject to unreliable or poorly supported gateway infrastructure.
What to consider for your IoT operation
As with any IoT operation, there are some key considerations you must evaluate before selecting the wireless network technology and system architecture. There are notable differences between NB-IoT and LoRaWAN and devices often will only support one system. Differences include:
1) Coverage, roaming and interoperability
In practical terms, coverage and interoperability vary significantly between NB-IoT and LoRaWAN.
Their low frequency band use, however, makes them attractive to those installing sensors in areas with poor mobile coverage or suffering signal attenuation due to being located indoors in metal framed or thick-walled structures.
NB-IoT, leveraging existing LTE infrastructure, in theory offers a broad coverage area, ideal for IoT operations that necessitate ubiquitous connectivity.
There are limitations, however, as not all MNO’s have implemented NB-IoT across their Base Station Network infrastructure.
Additionally, roaming is not always supported or controlled for multi-network access when using IoT SIM cards, and depends upon the MNO/MVNO operator agreements and state of the connected core infrastructure. For this reason, it is always worth checking the availability of NB-IoT with an MVNO for your SIM cards and any limitations of use.
This often means that a single-network mode is necessary or the best option. The standard is not well-suited to devices that move as base station handover is not supported as is the case with CAT-M1/LTE-M GSMA standards.
On the other hand, LoRaWAN’s operation in the unlicensed spectrum means that network access is dependent upon collaboration between disparate entities to form a wider access network.
Its coverage, though not as extensive as NB-IoT, is adequate for many local IoT applications, and provides decent interoperability due to its relatively open standard.
Roaming capability is not really a requirement as most LoRaWAN applications are where low power devices are installed in fixed monitoring locations with a 4- or 5-year lifetime and are intended to be disposed of at the end of that product lifespan.
2) Latency and bandwidth
Latency and bandwidth are pivotal in the performance of IoT networks, particularly for applications requiring near real-time data transmission and cloud interactions.
Due to its integration and more rapid cellular communications, NB-IoT generally exhibits lower latency rates compared to LoRaWAN, albeit due to its radio transmission characteristics and is slower than CAT-M1/LTE-M, 4G, & 5G.
While LoRaWAN has lower data speeds and higher latency than NB-IoT, the standards are designed to ensure that device transmissions are spread out and rationed between devices. This is only suitable for operations requiring short packet bursts, intermittent data transmission and non-real time/critical urgency. For example, a weather information system. LoRaWAN, however, is not suitable for life-critical alerts and alarms such as Carbon Monoxide or Smoke Alarms.
Its bandwidth efficiency and low power consumption, therefore, make LoRaWAN effective for non-time critical applications such as daily metering, non-urgent environmental monitoring, and forms of information systems for agriculture. These applications typically involve sensors that transmit data at preset intervals, and therefore, do not necessitate a high-speed, continuous data link. They also benefit from the low battery consumption and therefore infrequent needs to visit often remote or hard to reach locations.
3) Battery and energy consumption
In terms of energy consumption, both NB-IoT and LoRaWAN are designed to support low-power devices, a crucial aspect for many IoT operations, where devices may need to operate independently for extended periods. This is especially the case where devices are in third party owned buildings which makes access difficult.
As NB-IoT can preserve a synchronous connection to cellular networks regardless of whether there is data present to send, it can, in theory, consume more energy than LoRaWAN. This, however, is more a factor of the device design as many sensors are designed to enter sleep modes or can be configured to report less frequently.
However, this consumption is still lower than traditional 3G/4G cellular connections and, in scenarios where regular data transmission is required, it can provide a solution that meets the needs of certain use cases.
LoRaWAN tends to perform well in terms of energy efficiency, particularly for those types of devices that only need to transmit small data packets very intermittently or infrequently.
Both are suitable for applications where devices need to operate on battery power for many years, such as in remote monitoring and metering scenarios, however the battery lifetime for both will depend upon the device design, communication efficiency and the battery characteristics. Most device manufacturers will provide an expected life of a battery within this device. This, however, is only for guidance and systems need to be in place to monitor battery levels to ensure maintenance teams are provided plenty of warning to replace any depleting devices that form part of an ecosystem of service agreement.
Security is a paramount concern in any IoT operation. Both NB-IoT and LoRaWAN offer security measures to protect data integrity and therefore client confidentiality.
NB-IoT, being integrated with cellular networks, provides a high level of security due to the inherent GSM encryption methods.
LoRaWAN, although operating in the unlicensed spectrum, also provides a level of data security through a dual encryption system, applying both network and application layer security.
The security strength of a LoRaWAN network ,however, can depend on the implementation details and thus needs careful planning and management with LoRaWAN gateway and network providers.
The NB-IoT protocol utilises a subset of the LTE standard but operates at a radio frequency level in the guard bands between normal mobile traffic, which should ensure reliable connectivity even during peak times or the highest demands. Of course, the systems still do use the main mobile infrastructure, so problems with data transmission in the core networks will still affect NB-IoT traffic.
NB-IoT’s support for IPv6 allows it to accommodate a large range of IoT devices. An essential feature considering the burgeoning IoT landscape and the need for interoperability.
On the other hand, LoRaWAN adopts a unique and proprietary protocol that operates in the unlicensed spectrum. LoRaWAN does provide an adaptive data rate feature, which adjusts the data transmission somewhat based on the device’s proximity to the gateway.
Its operation in the unlicensed spectrum, however, may subject device transmissions to interference from other devices. This can especially be the case in indoor locations. A problem that can also affect Wi-Fi and ZigBee transmissions where many devices are attempting to communicate simultaneously.
The cost aspect of devices plays an instrumental role when deciding between NB-IoT and LoRaWAN.
Given its reliance on cellular infrastructure, NB-IoT offers a more predictable and plannable roll-out. Devices, however, will require a suitable modem to be integrated. Costs can vary and are often more determined by the scale of deployments and the resulting economies of scale that manufacturers can leverage.
LoRaWAN devices can be surprisingly expensive. Their high capital cost being offset by their potential for ‘fit and forget’, owing to a typical 3-to-5-year battery life span for simple measuring devices.
LoRaWAN solutions may also engender greater concern towards vendor lock-in and further investment needed in network management and security measures.
Thus, the cost consideration between NB-IoT and LoRaWAN really hinges on the specific needs, scale, and nature of your IoT operations.
Different networks for different IoT operations
Whilst on the topic of network deployment for specific IoT operations, let’s explore the best use cases for each of the networks in question.
When it comes to the deployment of IoT networks, NB-IoT and LoRaWAN each have their distinct advantages and areas of application.
Due to its superior availability, investment by MNO’s in their NB-IoT and supporting infrastructure, and low latency, NB-IoT tends to be better suited for urban and sub-urban IoT applications that require reliable connectivity, such as some elements of smart city infrastructure, industrial monitoring, and near real-time environmental monitoring.
Its integration with existing cellular core networks enables seamless, uninterrupted communication across long distances, which is crucial in applications where fast core data transmission is a necessity.
LoRaWAN tends to be used in rural or remote IoT applications, where no signal is available from mobile networks and therefore an alternative infrastructure is required.
Due to the previous unavailability of LTE-M and NB-IoT (before networks were upgraded to support), many other applications which relied on long battery life, used LoRaWAN due to their then unavailability.
As LTE-M and NB-IoT deployments gather pace, LoRaWAN is increasingly under pressure from these competing technologies.
There remains, however, a benefit in LoRaWAN to use carefully deployed edge gateways to connect sensors over distances that are longer than other LAN wireless technologies are capable of reaching. For example, a gateway located at the top of a block of flats could administer a number of typically hard to reach sensors.
Aggregating and then using mobile networks as the ubiquitous backhaul data mechanism.
LoRaWAN has tended to be deployed in weather monitoring, smart agriculture and by Local Government agencies, seeking to increase the efficiency of waste management by monitoring fill levels of waste and recycling containers.
Therefore, the choice between NB-IoT and LoRaWAN for IoT deployments largely depends upon the specific requirements of the IoT application being planned.
Unlock the appropriate connectivity solution!
Caburn Telecom is an industry leader in providing robust and reliable connectivity solutions, tailored to the needs of any IoT application.
Our expertise in Low Power networks such as LTE-M, NB-IoT and LoRaWAN has enabled us to develop a suite of information and services which can help you deploy and unlock the appropriate IoT network and device technology for a wide range of scenarios.
At Caburn Telecom, we provide comprehensive IoT connectivity services. Our team of experts are always on hand to help and provide technical support for any queries you may have regarding Low power, longer range networks such as NB-IoT or LoRaWAN networks.
So, if you’re looking for the right network solution for your IoT applications, look no further—Caburn Telecom is here to get you connected and help you unlock the power of IoT for you.
Contact us today to learn more about our services!