Information overload is proliferating across all aspects of our personal and business lives, making it challenging to make decisions about every facet of our daily lives. This is not any different when the CIOs of the large commercial real estate (CRE) organizations attempt to make a choice on the right connectivity technology for their smart building solutions! As connected devices, otherwise known as the “Internet of Things” (IoT), encroach upon our spaces where we live, work, learn and play, the number of technology options — starting from the sensory devices to gateway devices, from connectivity technologies to applications and cloud providers — pose an arduous challenge for the decision maker to opt for the right choice in technology procurement. This article will explore the cellular connectivity aspects of IoT, particularly the much talked about low-powerwide- area (LWPA) technologies — LTE-M (aka LTE Cat-M1) and NB-IoT (Narrow Band IoT) — and present a simple, synthesized version for the layman to understand and make the right choice for their IoT solutions.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE EVOLUTION OF THE CELLULAR LPWA TECHNOLOGIES:
The evolution of the LPWA technologies has taken an interesting shape within the past decade. During the early days of IoT, global mobile operators remained focused on supporting a new breed of application of Machine-to-Machine (M2M) devices — a term that preceded the term IoT in the cellular world — via the traditional 2G, 3G or 4G cellular networks. The non-traditional players saw an opportunity in the unlicensed spectrums, and came up with proprietary wireless- wide-area-network (WWAN) technologies to serve the IoT market. LoRA, Sigfox, Nwave, Weightless, etc. emerged as viable options to address specific WWAN connectivity needs of the enterprise and consumer IoT applications.
However, these proprietary LWPA technologies clearly lacked some of the greater advantages that the mobile operators brought to the mass market via the traditional WWAN technologies in 2G, 3G and 4G networks on licensed spectrums. Starting with standards-based approach and economies of scale, the global operators brought the obvious advantages in capacity, security, global footprint, and a plethora of eco-system partners with their network offerings. Naturally, it became a matter of time for the standards body of the global mobile operators, GSMA, to introduce its own machine-type communication (MTC) technologies, which ultimately became cellular LPWA technologies via the introduction of LTE-M (aka LTE-MTC, aka LTE-Cat-M1), Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) and Extended Coverage GSM IoT (EC-GSM-IoT) standards. Since LTE is the dominant and forward-looking technology globally, we will focus our discussion on LTE CAT-M1 and NB-IoT in this article.
Thinking about the market opportunities with LPWA, interestingly, the market analyst firm Machina Research (part of Gartner) estimated 3 billion LPWA connections by 2025, with 56% of active LPWA connections on licensed spectrum by 2022 (source: GSMA).
THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN CAT-M1 AND NB-IoT AND HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT CONNECTIVITY TECHNOLOGY FOR AN IoT APPLICATION
An important distinction between the proprietary LWPA technologies and the cellular LWPA technologies is flexibility and network options based on application complexity. As the knowledge of enterprise and consumer IoT applications have become sophisticated, so have the cellular connectivity options supporting them. Therein lies the real difference between CAT-M1 and NB-IoT — NB-IoT is targeted mostly for the end-point devices, such as sensors, actuators that have simple requirements, while CAT-M1 are targeted for low-powered devices with a bit more complex requirements like voice, mobility, and firmware upgrade capabilities. A comparative view of these two technologies has been laid out in the table below, including a comparison with LTE Category 1 (an earlier introduction of another MTC type standards by GSMA) to further contrast flexibilities in terms of cellular technology capabilities.
As we now have some understanding of the distinctions among the cellular LWPA technologies, let’s dive into figuring out how to choose the right technology for any application. In our examples below, we have focused on common IoT applications utilized in the CRE space. The table examines the requirements of each of the example applications as defined by GSMA. We have exemplified and suggested a choice of technology based on the characteristics of the applications and corresponding cellular LPWA technology. (See chart below)
THE “FIT” QUESTIONS TO ANSWER FOR THE RIGHT CHOICE OF CELLULAR LPWA TECHNOLOGY
Further to our understanding of LPWA options, choosing the right technology really depends on three “fit” factors:
- Technology fit: It is important to understand the requirements and constraints of the IoT application, and decide which connectivity option is the best fit for the desired application type. As we have explored a few example models above, the decision maker must dissect their device and application requirements along those example categories and understand their needs.
- Fit by cost: While at times it may seem that both Cat-M1 or NB-IoT can be a good fit, the cost factor can act as the guiding factor. Cost analysis must be performed in a holistic fashion by incorporating all of IoT applications and device needs for the organization. For example, consolidated applications using the same network from the same mobile operator may lead to a longer-term benefit in discounted data pricing.
- Fit by availability: Last but not the least, availability and maturity of the desired LPWA network by the mobile operator of choice in the desired geography is an important factor. For example, some mobile operators might be ahead in the deployment of LTE-Cat-M1 network, while the others are ahead in NB-IoT. Knowing their timeline of a scalable offering will help align with technology selection and implementation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Projit Aon is a technologist, a product leader, and an expert in IoT technologies. He led product management and helped to build Verizon’s Cellular IoT Platform, ThingSpace. Projit can be reached at email@example.com.