NB-IoT vs. LoRa vs. LTE Cat M1 or which of the technologies is the best?

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Let me tell you one thing in advance: None of the technologies is the best.

NB-IoT, LoRa and LET CAT M1 are wireless technologies that are becoming increasingly popular in conjunction with IoT products. In this article we take a look at the three technologies, their similarities, differences and the fields of application for which they are predestined.

Bild von Gerd Altmann auf Pixabay
© Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

What do the technologies have in common and for which applications are they particularly suitable?

All three technologies belong to the category of Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN). As the name already suggests, these are energy-efficient radio transmission technologies. Therefore NB-IoT, LoRa and LTE Cat M1 are very well suited for battery and rechargeable battery powered IoT products and sensors. Depending on the operating mode, up to 10 years of maintenance-free operation are achieved.

A major advantage, which is related to the low carrier frequency and the transmission or modulation methods, is the high penetration. It is possible to transmit data through thick walls from cellars, underground car parking slots or a sewer.

In the open field, where there are no obstacles in the way of the radio signal the range is even a few kilometres. Compared to Bluetooth, WiFi, RFID or ZigBeee, the range of NB-IoT, LoRa and LTE-CAT M1 is therefore very high.

A limitation of all three technologies is the small amount of data that can be transmitted. This is where NB-IoT and LoRa differ from LTE Cat M1. With NB-IoT and LoRa the data is transmitted in the form of so-called messages. With LTE Cat M1, on the other hand, the throughput is several Mbps, in other words about 25 times more. LTE Cat M1 also offers low latencies, voice telephony (VoLTE) and mechanisms to guarantee data transmission (high quality of service). From an application perspective, LTE Cat M1 can be compared to 2G.

Typical applications for LoRa and NB-IoT are smart meters, fleet management or wearables – i.e. applications from the field of “massive” IoT. These are non-critical applications with small amount of data. Possible failures or lost data sets are of less relevance in this kind of application.

In contrast, LTE Cat M1 is used especially in the “critical” IoT area. For example, in road safety, traffic monitoring and aviation – wherever an online connection is needed. Secure, reliable transmission must be guaranteed for these applications.

What are the differences regarding the required infrastructure?

LTE Cat M1 and NB-IoT represent an extension of the LTE network and are already anchored in the 5G standard. The technologies operate on a carrier frequency of 800 MHz in the licensed range and are subject to the 3GPP mobile phone standard. One of the advantages of NB-IoT and LTE Cat M1 is that the technologies are available by updating existing mobile networks. This means that no separate infrastructure is required.

LoRa is operated on the frequency of 868 MHz in the license-free band and therefore very cost-effective. The necessary infrastructure, including the base stations of the LoRa application servers etc., can even be installed privately as an isolate application. This guarantees long-term availability. As in many countries, however, there are public LoRa networks that can be used. The company SENS for example operates a LoRa network in Austria.

LoRa is subject to the standard of the LoRa Alliance. Due to the standardisation any LoRa sensors/products already available on the market are compatible with the network infrastructure.

IoT - Drei Ebenen - Produkt, Konnektivität, Cloud

Which technology is the best technology?

As already revealed at the beginning, none of the three technologies can be rated as better or worse. Rather, the question must be “With which technology can I best realise my IoT product or use case?” Because only if the technology meets the requirements of the application it will result in a product that provides added value for the market or the customer. The path to success for the product is thus already laid in the conceptual design phase. The Microtronics Digi Team asks the right questions in order to select the appropriate technology together with the customer.

Exemplary questions for the choice of the optimal transmission technology

  • In which countries and regions will the product be used?
  • Is it a mobile or a stationary product?
  • Which data must be transmitted by the product and how often?
  • What is the target lifetime of the product?
  • Who commissions the product and what is the installation process?

In two simplified examples you can see which considerations and arguments could lead to the choice of the respective transmission technology.

Example 1: Field camera

Question 1: In which countries, regions is the product used?

The field camera is sold on the international market. At the time of production, the manufacturer does not yet know exactly to which country the field camera will be sold and where it will be operated.

Question 2: Is the product mobile or stationary?

The product is fixed at the measuring point. With relatively little effort, the camera can be mounted and operated at a different location or field. For example, a field camera can first be mounted on a strawberry field and after the season it can monitor pumpkins on another field.

Question 3: What data must be transmitted from the product and how often, in order to provide real added value for the customer and for the business model to work?

The field camera records hourly climate data (temperature, humidity, precipitation). A picture is taken once a day. Every day the picture is transmitted to the server together with the climate data.

Mögliche Applikationen mit D-Eye und Fieldeye

The answer to these three questions leads to the choice of LTE Cat M1 as transmission technology. LTE Cat M1 offers roaming, i.e. the use of the technology across national borders. In addition, larger data volumes, such as pictures, can be transmitted.

Example 2: Asset tracking on company premises

Question 1: In which countries, regions is the product used?

The product is used exclusively on our own company premises in the region of Waldviertel. The cloud is operated in the own IT centre.

Question 2: What data must be transmitted from the product and how often for real added value for the customer and for the business model to work?

The position of the product on the company premises should be transferred regularly. When leaving a defined area, a message should also be transmitted to the server.

Location Based Services

LoRa can be set up as a private infrastructure and operated by the customer himself. Such a private network is the ideal solution in this case. Alternatively, NB-IoT could be used if there is network coverage in this area.

1,2, or 3 – Which technology is the right for you?

Do you want to realise an Internet of Things application with LPWAN technologies? Do you need support in choosing the right technology?

Visit Microtronics for a free virtual IoT Coffee! Tell us about your idea! Together we will find out how you can use innovative technologies to make your application with added value a reality.

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