LTE-M and NB-IoT – fight!

It is soon July and Finland is at its most beautiful. Days are long, restaurant terraces have been open for some time now, and you might even be sitting in one of them now as you read this blog post. Your summer holiday either started or is about to start, but one thing is bugging you…

You couldn’t make it to Telenor Connexion webinar in early June, that stacked up NB-IoT and LTE-M technologies against each other.

If missing that learning opportunity is bugging you, worry no more. I will use the content of this blog to provide a concise summary explaining these two technologies and their use cases, just in case the lack of this knowledge is stopping you from enjoying your terrace beer.

Let’s start with the basics.

LTE-M stands for LTE-Machine Type Communication (also LTE-MTC or LTE Cat M), and NB-IoT stands for Narrowband-IoT. Both are radio network technology specifications known for utilizing Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN), with the main aim of providing better battery life and connecting hard to reach devices in remote or indoor locations. This is achieved by reducing the interaction between the device and the network.

There is a catch, however. You can’t have it all. Devices needing a long battery life should be placed in an area with good coverage or eventually alternate between sleep and active modes. Devices can support either LTE-M, NB-IoT or both simultaneously.

Commercially speaking, LTE-M and NB-IoT are not priced like your usual mobile subscriptions since it’s a volume business: a vast number of potential devices is anticipated, generating much lower amounts of traffic.

These technologies are no science fiction and are already available on the 4G radio network. They are by the way forward compatible, so no SIM card replacement is needed when 5G rollout progresses.

If you are in an industry that relies on a lot of sensors and connected devices that are in hard to reach areas or with a need for a long battery life, which technology wins?

Well it depends on the use case. If you want a future proof solution, go for LTE-M, thanks to its wider bandwidth that might accommodate potentially new use cases with data rates in the 1 Mbps – 4Mbps range. LTE-M is also the more global as it incorporates roaming by design, plus it’s a better choice for moving devices. Security and software updates do play in LTE-M benefit, thanks to the higher bandwidth.

On the other hand, if no significant functional changes are expected throughout the lifetime of the device, NB-IoT might be a better alternative. NB-IoT data rates are in the 26 Kbps – 127 Kbps range, and it might be better suited for large scale deployments where the requirements do not change with time, sensors are static, and indoor coverage is of top priority.

Moving to NB-IoT and LTE-M might not be a matter of choice. As old radio technologies like 2G or 3G are gradually phased out, naturally speaking organizations must look for a replacement technology. It’s good to mention at this stage that 2G availability will continue to be in use in EU until 2025, due to its use in emergency services and resulting legal requirements.

However, as you phase out into summer mode, it’s good to keep in the back of the head what the future might bring.