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NB-IoT vs LTE-M: What are the differences?

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With the number of IoT devices expected to soar past 25.54 billion by 2030 (https://dataprot.net/statistics/iot-statistics/, 2023), it’s vitally important to be using the correct technology for your IoT operation.

NB-IoT and LTE-M are two technologies that offer different solutions for implementing IoT devices. Although they are all part of the Long-Term Evolution (LTE) and 5G family, they operate and offer quite different capabilities.

They are both Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) developed for IoT (Internet of Things) use, each with unique benefits that can affect the cost, efficiency and effectiveness of your IoT operation.

Considering that by 2026, it’s estimated that NB-IoT and LTE-M will make up 60% of the 3.6 billion LPWA network connections, being ‘in the know’ about these modern technologies is essential. Keep reading to discover more.

What is NB-IoT

NB-IoT, or Narrowband Internet of Things, is a narrowband technology designed to connect a large number of IoT devices with low bandwidth requirements.

It provides excellent indoor coverage with low power consumption, making it a suitable solution for devices that do not need to transmit large amounts of data, such as smart meters and some forms of asset-tracking devices.

NB-IoT can operate in a single mode, which means it can only send or receive data. Unlike CAT M1 and LTE-M standards (if implemented by the mobile network operator), NB-IoT does not cater for cell handovers and voice.

Therefore, this technology is more designed for static devices intended to be left in situ for a significant/long period of time with limited functionality.

NB-IoT is Affordable and Uses Less Power

NB-IoT is a robust and typically inexpensive solution for IoT operations (depending upon the commercial terms of individual network operators), especially when data transmission is limited and the devices in question remain static.

Its required power usage is also significantly less than other licensed wireless technologies, allowing devices to be powered by batteries for longer periods of time. This is important for sensors or readers that are fitted once with an expected useful life before changeout.

Additionally, due to its low bandwidth requirements and specifications, NB-IoT can connect more devices than LTE-M. This is partly because although NB-IoT is bandwidth-constrained, it can use unused guard bands that are typically used to lower interference between mainstream mobile traffic. This means that many more devices can connect to the network as they are using channels unused by other mobile devices.

Further, by using a low-frequency spectrum, it can cover large distances by having lower attenuation, making it ideal for rural areas. It is a good choice for applications and devices that require less frequent data transfers, such as environmental monitoring.

What is LTE-M?

Long Term Evolution for Machines (LTE-M) is a simplified term for eMTC LPWA (enhanced machine type communication low power wide area) technology and uses a comparatively higher data rate than NB-IoT technology.

As a result, LTE-M offers faster data transfer rates, lower latency, and better mobility support than NB-IoT.

This technology offers more bandwidth than NB-IoT and uses the same fundamental infrastructure as existing LTE networks.

LTE-M Uses Low Amounts of Data and Is Suitable For Mobile Application

LTE-M’s IoT applications require small amounts of data using low bandwidth at low costs while being able to accommodate more complex applications than NB-IoT.

As a result, LTE-M is ideal for a wide range of IoT applications that require frequent data transfers. The mobile application support and lower latency times of LTE-M also make it ideal for applications requiring low, medium and high data speeds, such as fleet management.

It is also more suitable for applications that require more sophisticated two-way communication and provides better coverage than NB-IoT in urban areas due to its potential higher mast availability and handover capability.

Moreover, LTE-M is a cost-effective solution due to its use of existing LTE infrastructure which means that service providers do not need to invest excessively in diverging developments of their local and core networks. However, LTE-M can require more expensive hardware than NB-IoT if certain features are implemented in their supporting devices.

Key differences between NB-IoT and LTE-M

When comparing NB-IoT and LTE-M as low-power wide-area network technologies, there are several distinct characteristics separating them, such as:

  • Coverage
  • Download speeds
  • Roaming
  • Global availability
  • Battery life
  • Deployment and mobility
  • Cost
  • Data transmission.

The first main difference between NB-IoT and LTE-M is their coverage. NB-IoT provides wider coverage at lower data rates, while LTE-M provides better coverage as well in areas with higher data speeds and normal LTE infrastructure.

Additionally, NB-IoT theoretically offers longer battery life and lower device costs than LTE-M, which requires more power and potentially higher hardware costs if all its features are included within its hardware. This is contentious, however, as testing suggests that LTE-M potentially offers better battery performance within normal mast ranges, while NB-IoT performs better outside of them.

Another difference between the two technologies is their deployment and mobility. NB-IoT is ideal for deploying IoT devices in rural areas with weak cellular signals, while LTE-M is better suited for rural and urban areas, where mobility and swift real-time data transmission are needed. This is due to the cell handover capability and higher-speed data transmission of LTE-M.

This is an important difference as this critical feature is not supported in NB-IoT, which means devices will not connect as easily in transit.

What’s more, LTE-M offers more extensive roaming support, enabling devices to maintain connectivity across different networks and geographies, an essential feature for mobile or international applications.

Conversely, NB-IoT’s roaming capabilities are somewhat limited, making it ideal for stationary applications within a fixed location.

Although NB-IoT and LTE-M are available on 5G and related GSMA standards, there are some factors that affect their availability around the globe. The GSMA’s Mobile IoT Development Map showcases the global deployment of both technologies at the present time, although a limiting factor in deployments of both technologies is that individual MNO’s roll-outs vary considerably and are not always available across their entire network at this stage (https://www.gsma.com/solutions-and-impact/technologies/internet-of-things/deployment-map/, 2023).

NB-IoT vs LTE-M with IoT

There are currently 110 NB-IoT networks and 60 LTE-M networks globally (https://www.gsma.com/solutions-and-impact/technologies/internet-of-things/mobile-iot-commercial-launches/, 2023), with many IoT SIM cards now supporting these technologies.

LTE-M, being part of the main LTE standards and the implementation of them via network carriers, is a more native implementation. Many IoT carriers are, however, also supporting NB-IoT network deployments to meet the needs of IoT customers with very low data, long battery life use cases.

One of the difficulties of NB-IoT, however, is the ability of it to generate sufficient commercial revenues for network operators. For this reason, access to NB-IoT networks is increasingly requiring a monthly access charge which is applied per device.

eDRX (Extended Discontinuous Reception) and PSM (Power Saving Mode) can have a drastic effect on an IoT device’s battery life using an NB-IoT or LTE-M network. Both technologies allow a device to remain dormant in the network while still able to receive messages when it needs them. This allows for extended battery life and lower power consumption. LTE-M systems are more suited than NB-IoT for eDRX and PSM, but both will be supported by most IoT carriers.

Going forward, NB-IoT and LTE-M will each play an essential part in IoT operations following the 3G sunset, especially for IoT devices which are currently operating IoT SIM cards which are using 2G or 3G networks for their connectivity.

Of course, considering that both technologies offer a low-cost solution that consumes less data, provides a longer battery life and allows for connectivity in hard-to-reach locations, they are a far superior option over 4G or 5G for certain low data, low mobility or static IoT use cases. It is important to check, however, with Caburn Telecom as to the state of deployments with mobile network operators in each region, to ensure coverage exists, matching the intended use-case and geographical reach needed.

Discover resilient connectivity with Caburn Telecom

Ultimately, NB-IoT and LTE-M offer unique features and benefits to address specific IoT use cases. Therefore, the choice between these technologies should be based on the specific needs of your IoT application.

If low-cost, low-power, low-bandwidth static IoT devices are needed in remote areas, NB-IoT can be a better choice. Meanwhile, LTE-M is better suited for higher-speed, higher-bandwidth moving IoT devices deployed in urban and semi-rural areas, supplying better coverage, cell handover, geo-redundancy and reliability.

Caburn Telecom is an industry leader in IoT solutions and can provide the best option for your IoT project. Our solutions help you optimise device performance and ensure secure data connectivity for all your IoT operations with the maximum uptime.

To discover more about NB-IoT, LTE-M or IoT, please contact us today.