What is NB-IoT?

NB-IoT is an attractive choice of an LPWAN for companies that are considering deploying energy-efficient, stationary IoT devices in remote, hard-to-reach locations at a large scale.

Just like the name suggests, Narrowband IoT (short: NB-IoT) relies on a narrowband (180 KHz and 200 KHz).

This does not just provide an impressive connection density of up to 100,000 active connections per cells but also comes along with penetration capabilities, making it particularly useful for IoT projects in confined indoor, concrete-dense or underground environment.

Key Takeaways

  • NB-IoT is a connectivity protocol that was conceived by 3GPP to address common requirements of most IoT network operators.
  • It is very power-efficient, secure, provides good range and wall penetration and a high connection density.
  • To achieve these feats, NB-IoT sacrifices latency, mobility and bandwidth.
  • Many networking specialists recognize NB-IoTs potential and believe in its widespread adoption in the near future alongside the universal rise of IoT.
  • We will have an estimated five billion active IoT-devices connected by 2025 and over half of these will likely communicate over NB-IoT or Cat-M connectivity standards.

NB-IoT for underground environments

In contrast to the standard cellular networks, the radio coverage with NB-IoT is also available in places that are difficult to access, such as underground. NarrowBand IoT is an LPWA technology (Low Power Wide Area). Another term for NB-IoT is LTE Cat NB1. It can be integrated into existing mobile networks by network operators for the various applications of the Internet of Things.

Compared to GSM, UMTS or LTE, the major advantage is that NarrowBand IoT can also be used in places where the range and quality of 2G, 3G or 4G mobile radio signals is too low, thanks to good building penetration. NarrowBand IoT is designed for applicationswhere traditional network technologies such as WIFI, Bluetooth or cellular are unavailable, impractical or unprofitable. Mobile providers can operate NB-IoT in their licensed frequency spectrum of LTE networks or standalone in a dedicated radio spectrum

NB-IoT vs LTE-M

Power consumption

When NB-IoT-enabled devices are not changing location and thus do not have to switch between cells, they tend to be way more efficient than devices communicating via. LTE-M. This is a decisive factor for many IoT application, as maintenance costs of having to manually switch batteries can be extensive, especially for large-scale operations that may have tens of thousands of devices deployed. In theory, Nb-IoT devices may have a battery life of up to ten years, however, there are many factors influencing battery life.

Penetration and range

By utilizing a single narrowband of 180 KHz or 200 KHz, NB-IoT achieves a great transmission power density, which significantly improves is range. Thus NB-IoT is more suitable for IoT-devices deployed in buildings, tunnels, basements or similar locations, compared to LTE-M.

Latency

LTE-M may be the better option for IoT networks, where latency is crucial (for example when companies need to analyze sensor data in real-time rapidly) LTE-M has a latency of around 50ms to 150ms, while NB-IoT has a latency of 1600 to 10000ms (10 seconds).

Mobility

NB-IoT does not yet support full mobility. NB-IoT devices need to alternate between different cells as they change location and travel around; this can decrement battery life of the devices. LTE-M devices do not have to reselect cells when they change location.

For example Shared scooter applications or fleet tracking operations may decide to opt for LTE-M. While NB-IoT connections may be theoretically possible, the devices will likely suffer from faster battery depletion, increased latency and a less reliable connection. Intrinsically, by design, NB-IoT was designed to be used for stationary devices.

Bandwidth

Bandwidth is rarely an issue, as most sensor data is fairly compact and IoT-projects rarely revolve around the data-intensive IoT applications. Datasets tend to be binary and in the kilobyte range. Some IoT-devices, such as CCTV cameras may need to transmit high data volumes in real-time. In this case, LTE-M may be the battery choice. While it isn’t on par with standard LTE networks in terms of connection speed, it is way faster than NB-IoT. LTE-M’s data rate is around 300 Kbps to 1 Mbps, while NB-IoT can only achieve around 100 Kbps.

Deployment of NB-IoT

The specifications of NB-IoT improve the ranges and signal levels of the mobile radio network. At the same time, the complexity of the radio module is reduced and the maximum transmission rates in the transmit and receive directions are limited. Thus, NB-IoT achieves an additional 20dB in its power transmission balance and network coverage.

Due to the limited data rates, only narrowband applications are possible. The maximum download and upload data rates are 250 kilobits per second. The channels are each only 180 kilohertz wide. Thanks to these narrow channel widths, NarrowBand IoT can be operated both inband on regular LTE carriers and outband, for example in the guard band (gap between the radio bands).

If LTE bands such as the 900 MHz and 800 MHz range are used, this results in even better building penetration, as the longer-wave radio signals of lower frequency penetrate objects and obstacles better than, for example, LTE signals in the 1,800 MHz or 2,600 MHz frequency bands. The range increase of NarrowBand IoT is achieved, among other things, by a more robust modulation technology.

Future of NB-IoT

Huawei and Gemalto are by many considered to be the main drivers behind the increasing development of NB-IoT. They have combined their core competencies in a large cooperation. Gemalto provides its expertise in digital security as well as connectivity, while Huawei leverages its expertise in developing compact, yet high-performance NB-IoT chipsets, which will help IoT device manufacturers to shrink the size and material costs of their devices.

The upfront deployment costs for companies will reflect these savings in manufacturing. Thus the financial barrier of entry can be considerably lowered. NB-IoT is an open standard. In contrast, proprietary LPWAN standards like LoRa or Sigfox heavily regulate the market for products using their protocol. Only licensed manufacturers and partners are allowed to develop products that function on their protocol. NB-IoT does not have this limit as the standard itself is not proprietary; any company can contribute to the development of NB-IoT.

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