Jun 29, 2017

The Next Generation of Cellular IoT Networks – Where to Begin?

Last modified on November 7, 2021

In the ongoing push to establish the next generation of cellular IoT networks, the remaining key question is: Which technology should be rolled out first – CAT-M1, offering a quicker time-to-market, or CAT-NB1, providing a simpler and more cost-efficient service?

As organizations have various connectivity options, understanding the differences in the available offerings is crucial. While both options (CAT-M1 and NB- IoT) are complementary, they address different types of use cases based on the strength of their technological capabilities. NB-IoT is ideal for use cases with low data throughputs which do not require high refresh rates (like smart meters and sensors) while CAT-M1 is great for high bandwidth data rates, mobility (asset tracking, vehicles, etc.) and voice connectivity.
Both CAT-M1 and CAT-NB1 are considered future-proof. So what are different countries opting for?

In the U.S. – the first market to see these new technologies deployed – Verizon and AT&T appear to have opted for the time-to-market angle and are now both offering services on their individual CAT-M1 networks. There is considerable logic to this in that M1 can be implemented through a relatively straightforward software update to the existing radio infrastructure, while NB1 will require new hardware.

With existing CAT-1 base stations upgraded to support M1, providers can now offer more competitive solutions in terms of service cost, compared to the previous M2M technologies. Given that M1 networks are already up and running, network providers and device manufacturers are free to take their time retrofitting base stations with the necessary hardware for an eventual NB1 rollout.

In Europe, the major carriers have experienced something of a change-of-heart. Having initially stated they would begin with the simpler and ultimately lower cost NB1 networks – ideal for applications, such as smart metering, that do not require mobility or voice – they have since changed tack, opting instead for the lower initial investment required for an upgrade to M1. This is due to the availability of an M1 eco-system driven by the initial U.S. deployment.

With the initial U.S. deployment in place, an M1 ecosystem has been created that can be easily applied to Europe, with devices, chipsets and certification processes already available. In February, Orange Europe announced the deployment of M1, with pilots beginning this year, while NB1 will be added to their offering at some point in the future.

Asia is somewhat divided over the M1/NB1 issue. Much like their European counterparts, Japanese operators have opted to start with M1, motivated by the existence of an M1 ecosystem. China, on the other hand, has opted to begin with NB1, driven predominantly by Huawei as the only current vendor with a commercial narrowband offering. In South Korea, this division is even more evident. At least one carrier is already gearing up to roll out M1 offerings this year, while others will wait for NB1.

The future is bright for both. Predictions from Statista show that NB-IoT will reach 750+ million connections by 2023.

GSMA also reports that a total of 127 commercial networks were launched with either LTE-M or NB-IoT, a trend that shows no signs of stopping.

Some countries will have M1 coverage, some will have NB1 coverage, and some will have both. Devices that target global applications, such as pallet tracking and cold chain management, will need dual-mode operation as key  requirement. In places that are covered by both M1 and NB1, this will enable such devices to select the optimal network in terms of cost and quality.