Dec 18, 2017

LTE-M or NB-IoT? The Polls Say, Go for Both

Last modified on January 9, 2022.

As the adoption of the next generation of cellular IoT networks continues, it seems no one technology will ultimately dominate.

While NB-IoT and LTE-M are complementary to each other, they address different use cases based on their different product requirements and network availability. NB-IoT is ideal for usage in devices that need to conserve power and battery life, for example, in hard-to-reach areas like underground or rural environments. It is typically used for things like meters, underground sensors, wearables or machinery. LTE-M may also be used for these applications. However, as it has a high need for power, it is also used for trackers, connected vehicles, medical and wearable devices.

Both technologies provide a unique level of flexibility and power saving functionality and have been rapidly expanding coverage and global reach over the past few years.

The US and Australia have spearheaded the rollout of LTE-M. This process is motivated by the relatively straightforward upgrade of existing CAT-1 networks, as well as voice support, lower latency and improved power consumption to address a potentially larger subset of IoT applications.

Concurrently, China and Europe have opted to begin with the simpler and ultimately lower cost Cat-NB1 (NB-IoT) networks, ideal for those more basic metering and sensor applications which do not require mobility or voice.

Regardless of where they begin, it now seems inevitable that most markets will be employing both M1 and narrowband networks in the near future. For this reason, Altair has prioritized the development of highly integrated dual-mode chipsets, compatible with both technologies.

This prediction was corroborated in the second poll conducted during our recent webinar. Out of almost 600 industry professionals, nearly 43% confirmed their intention to employ both CAT-M1 and NB1 for their IoT deployments:

This is exactly what we at Altair have been anticipating. There a limited number of vendors and OEMs that will use just one technology to target specific operators or geographies. However, in the majority of cases, device manufacturers intend to ship products in high volumes and targeted for the global market. Therefore, roaming devices may start out in Europe or Asia, where there are predominantly narrowband networks, and arrive in the Americas, where M1 networks are more prevalent.

Additionally, certain situations may require a temporary change from one technology to the other. For example, with firmware over-the-air (FOTA) updates: downloading a large image in CAT-NB1 will consume a large amount of power, thus impacting the device’s battery life. Switching to LTE-M for the purposes of the download (if a suitable network is available) will often be a more efficient option.

Not knowing where a device may eventually end up, it is much simpler (and common business sense) for an OEM to design and distribute for both technologies, safe in the knowledge it will be able to operate wherever it lands, regardless of the predominant network coverage. The overriding concern, therefore, is to select the most suitable dual-mode chipset to address all one’s IoT needs.