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5G NB-IoT Explained

This article will examine NB-IoT radio technology, how it works, and the potential uses it has.

5G NB-IoT Explained

Leaders in business and technology are debating how to transform their enterprises digitally by utilizing 5G's increased data throughput, ultra-high reliability, very low latency, and other innovative features.

The NB-IoT has a dramatic impact on smart management and power efficiency. This article will examine NB-IoT radio technology, how it works, and the potential uses it has.

What is NB-IoT?

NB-IoT stands for Narrowband-IoT, is a type of Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) radio technology that connects devices to the Internet of Things. NB-IoT significantly increases system capacity, the efficiency of the spectrum, and user device power consumption, particularly in areas with deep coverage. All significant manufacturers of mobile devices, chipsets, and modules support NB-IoT, which can coexist with 2G, 3G, and 4G mobile networks. It also benefits from all the security and privacy characteristics of mobile networks, including support for user identity confidentiality, entity authentication, confidentiality, data integrity, and mobile equipment identification.

Overall, NB-IoT provides extensive coverage, affordable hardware, and long battery life.

How does NB-IoT work?

NB-IoT was first specified in 3GPP's Release (Rel) 13. It was initially introduced by 3GPP as a connectivity option for stationary devices. In order to reduce hardware costs, NB-IoT devices are made to operate on a very small 180 kHz spectrum.

There are three ways to implement NB-IoT on a network:

  • Stand-alone: Uses a stand-alone carrier in a dedicated spectrum.
  • In-band: Uses resource blocks within a normal LTE carrier.
  • Guard band: Uses the unused resource blocks within an LTE carrier’s guard band.

3GPP Rel 14 provides NB-IoT with improved mobility, however not to the same degree as other cellular technologies. Rel. 14 enhanced data rate performance as well:

  • Rel 13 (NB1): Up to 21 kbps downlink, 62.5 kbps uplink
  • Rel 14 (NB2): Up to 120 kbps downlink, 160 kbps uplink

NB-IoT: the mobile industry's response to non-cellular LPWAN

The first and only cellular LPWAN standards for many years are NB-IoT and two other LPWAN family standards. The other two cellular LPWAN technologies are EC-GSM-IoT and eMTC, now often commonly referred to as LTE-M. Together, these standards were sometimes referred to as "Mobile IoT," albeit the term is unclear because M2M and IoT were already used with older mobile cellular technology and are still often used today.

Practically speaking, the cellular LPWAN standards' introduction means that traditional (cellular) mobile operators now provide NB-IoT, which has various advantages and consequences that come with using cellular network technologies and working with operator networks and their business ecosystems.

NB-IoT uses licensed spectrum, like other cellular technologies. As stated above, there are three ways to implement NB-IoT.

NB-IoT and Massive IoT

In practice, NB-IoT and LTE-M will frequently be compared since they are the two choices that the mobile industry ecosystem of manufacturers, service providers, and network operators are pushing and because they make sense from a cellular standpoint.

LPWAN, sometimes called Massive IoT, is an industry phrase that simply refers to those “billions” of devices that typically transmit small data volumes, are often sent at intervals, and require extended battery lives, similar to NB-IoT and others. 

NB-IoT uses narrower bandwidth optimized for low throughput applications. Low data flows, which 2G and 3G have long supported, are migrating in large numbers to 4G and 5G as these older standards become obsolete everywhere. Massive IoT over mobile networks will continue to advance as LTE-M and NB-IoT improve with each new 5G release.

NB-IoT and LTE-M: some differences between the main cellular LPWAN options

It should go without saying that you shouldn't limit your search to just features and technical specifications if you want to determine which LPWAN or, more broadly, IoT communication standards, best meet your needs and if NB-IoT is appropriate for your project. 

Always get in touch with a reliable partner in the area you want your application to cover. Features are frequently described in terms of theoretical potential and maximums without taking into account how your application is set up.

This is especially true for battery life and speed. Additionally, connectivity fits into a bigger picture, and lastly, it's important to consider the network's dependability, quality, and management as well as your potential partner's roadmap and ecosystem of partners.

With all of that said, here is how NB-IoT and LTE-M compare:

NB-IoT: less ‘powerful' than LTE-M

Of the two main cellular LPWAN technologies currently used in networks (NB-IoT and eMTC/LTE-M), NB-IoT is the least "powerful" one in terms of speed, data transfer capability, and support for mobile use cases; however, in other areas, it performs better.

The setup of NB-IoT data architecture and its essential features can have an impact on a device's performance, cost, and roaming capabilities.

This generally means that NB-IoT will be used more in projects where non-cellular standards are frequently used. Examples include several smart city applications, such as smart parking, smart meters, some smart home applications, manufacturing automation, smart grid applications, smoke detectors, and industrial IoT applications with many low-power devices.

Latency of NB-IoT

When compared to LTE-M, NB-IoT is less suitable for situations where very low network latency is required.

As a result, LTE-M is a better fit in situations where near-real-time data may be necessary. Both NB-IoT and LTE-M have a role in the road towards 5G, where extremely low network latency enables use cases that need speed. 

NB-IoT and mobility

NB-IoT does not offer complete mobility capability, in contrast to LTE-M. However, NB-IoT applications and use cases involving fixed (stationary) assets and devices are more common. Just because NB-IoT is limited doesn't imply it can't be used for mobile assets and devices. For instance, there are live NB-IoT applications with trackers, shared bicycle applications, applications for the environment with a moving component but low throughput, smart logistics, and more.

Fixed assets, such smart meters and point-of-sale terminals are typically the focus of NB-IoT, although they are not the only ones. For "true seamless mobility," LTE-M is the preferred technology.

NB-IoT: focus on energy efficiency

Compared to LTE-M, NB-IoT is also more concerned with low power consumption. The success of your IoT project depends on this. The overall cost of your project rises if you use a lot of IoT devices with batteries since these batteries wear out more quickly. Because it's a manual task and a service, replacing batteries in all the hardware for that project or ones similar to it will be expensive. As a result, the ROI and total value of the business case increase with battery life. Additionally, very low power opens up a large array of use cases for possibly countless devices. The battery life of NB-IoT is capable of lasting up to 10 years.

NB-IoT and indoor/underground penetration

The NB-indoor IoT's penetration capabilities can be an essential element for you. It is estimated that one NB-IoT base station cell can handle thousands of NB-IoT-connected devices.

Because NB-IoT uses a narrowband (or, to be more accurate, a narrower bandwidth and a single narrow band of 200KHz or 180KHz), it allows for a higher transmission power density, which, combined with other coverage enhancement features, improves indoor penetration and reach.

More NB-IoT features

The level of bidirectionality provided by NB-IoT is lower than that of LTE-M. It enables over-the-air firmware updates, and as it uses cellular technology, it has advantages in terms of security and service quality.

Different average data rates have been recorded, and it is evident that the average data rate (downlink speed and uplink speed) varies. It is important to keep in mind that they are typically lower than the maxima.

NB-IoT across regions

NB-IoT was first introduced in Asia and Europe. The first LTE-M networks were introduced by operators in the US and North America. Although most didn't initially plan to, they have now also launched an NB-IoT offer. Following the launch of NB-IoT, many operators in Europe are currently focusing their efforts on LTE-M. For regional reasons, the methods vary between operators and occasionally between operators within the same country.

NB-IoT roaming: the first steps

Similar to what they did with LTE-M roaming, mobile network operators are already starting inter-carrier roaming agreements as they expand the deployment of their NB-IoT networks.

The US and some regions of Europe now use NB-IoT roaming thanks to a first roaming agreement struck by AT&T and Vodafone Business in October 2019. This includes the Vodafone networks in Spain, Germany, Italy, the UK, and the Netherlands.

More of these NB-IoT roaming agreements will follow, enabling the use of a single SIM to operate across many networks.

Final thoughts

Even though 5G NB-IoT isn’t mainstream yet when looking for a solution that will be right for you, here are the questions you should be asking:

  • Is the module multi-mode?
    The ability to connect to either NB-IoT or LTE-M networks is made possible by employing a multi-mode module that supports both NB-IoT and LTE-M. This makes it simpler to deploy IoT applications globally.

  • How secure is the module?
    Are security features like HTTPS, secure socket, secure boot, and free limitless over-the-air firmware updates integrated into the module? You can safeguard your IoT data from dangerous attackers by using these and other security solutions offered by reliable organizations with extensive IoT experience.

  • Is the module future-proof?
    You can future-proof your IoT application by choosing modules that can be updated with new firmware over the air and that have a common form factor with a consistent pin-out and software interface.

  • Does the module support edge processing?
    You may modify the rules of your IoT application as your business needs change, lower the cost of data transmission, and increase the battery life of your devices with the aid of modules that make it simple for you to filter, prioritize, or otherwise handle some data at the edge.


Jan 27,2023 ● 9 min read

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