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Exploring Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT)

Our Chief Product Officer, Matt Thomas discusses how NB-IoT works, how the benefits and suitable applications compare with 2G/3G and LTE-M (Cat-M1) and the role that it will play in the growth of the IoT.

An introduction to LPWAN and NB-IoT

Matt Thomas, Chief Product Officer

The sunset of 2G and 3G technologies has been a concern for Internet of Things (IoT) product developers for some time. With 2G set to be switched off by 2025 we are now seeing the deployment of the last generation of devices that depend on these standards. The next generation of IoT products will begin to use the latest Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) technologies to ensure they remain connected throughout their lifecycle.

There are a lot of LPWAN choices, but for products that would previously have used 2G or 3G, the most likely replacements are Narrow Band IoT (NB-IoT) and Long-Term Evolution for Machines (LTE-M). Unlike previous cellular technologies, both options were designed with IoT devices in mind and are part of the LTE mobile standards.

Wireless Logic is excited to announce that NB-IoT connectivity through Vodafone is available now in the UK, Spain, The Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Czech Republic. LTE-M has already been deployed by Vodafone in The Netherlands and will soon be launching in the UK with O2.
To help you understand which technology is right for your product and how to bring it into your next generation of devices, we’ve put this article together to answer some key questions.

What is NB-IoT?

NB-IoT is a low cost cellular LPWAN technology that can offer long battery life (up to 10 years) and long-range communication with better penetration than 2G, allowing your device to stay connected in hard-to-reach places including subterranean, indoor and rural areas.

Mass IoT deployments are made possible as cell sites providing NB-IoT connectivity can support up to 10,000 connections, however handovers between different cell towers are not supported.

Data rates are very low (tens of Kilobytes per second) with high latencies that could be up to 20 seconds, meaning that the preferred protocol is UDP rather than TCP.

As the name suggests, many of these features are a result of operating with a very narrow bandwidth, less than 200KHz. This allows the carrier to operate in guard bands of other LTE services, offering otherwise unused parts of the spectrum.

The low power consumption comes from the ability to sleep for long periods between receiving data, known as extended Discontinuous Reception (eDRX). Additionally, Power Saving Mode (PSM) allows the radio to be shutdown completely and doesn’t need to re-attach itself to the network when it is switched back on, however it cannot receive any data in PSM.

As a result, NB-IoT is best suited for stationary devices that send very small amounts of data (under 5MB per month), can tolerate long latencies and are located in places that other technologies would struggle to get signal to.

What use cases are NB-IoT good for?

It’s likely that many use cases previously using 2G will be well suited to NB-IoT.

Smart meters are a great candidate. As an asset that may be deep inside a building, it will benefit from the increased sensitivity of NB-IoT and only needs to send small amounts of data, which can have long latencies.

Remote sensors for smart cities, industrial, agricultural or residential settings are ideal for this technology. When the attributes being monitored are slow to change, such as environmental temperature and humidity, they can work within the limits of the data rates and will benefit from a very long battery life.

Price sensitive applications that need a low cost of ownership should consider NB-IoT. The long product life cycles, ability to work in remote locations and low-cost modules make mass IoT deployments economically viable.

Security is an ever-growing concern for IoT product developers. The development of NB-IoT included ‘secure by design’ characteristics, making it suitable for applications requiring secure communication. Beyond the built-in levels of security, we can offer a managed Virtual Private Network (VPN) with encrypted connections to protect your data as it traverses the internet to get to your enterprise servers.

Applications that require higher data rates, Over-the-Air updates or low latencies won’t be well suited to NB-IoT, but instead will be good candidates for LTE-M, which is comparable to 3G.

How do I get started with NB-IoT?

If it’s clear that your next generation of devices will need to support NB-IoT (even if they have a 2G fallback), you’ll need to be aware of a few things that you’ll need to do differently from a technical perspective.

While many IoT devices currently send data over HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), an NB-IoT device should use the Constrained Application Protocol (CoAP). This is a very similar to HTTP, but it’s been designed for constrained devices and is very lightweight. Engineers familiar with HTTP shouldn’t have a problem working with CoAP, but it’s worth understanding that it will mean making changes to your server as well as the device that’s sending data.

The other big difference is that voice calls are not supported and Short Message Service (SMS) protocols are not widely supported. This will mean that any products making use of SMS messages to update settings will need to use an alternative method via IP, such as queuing messages for downlinks.

To get started you’ll need development hardware and some SIM cards. We can provide test SIM cards in either 2FF, 3FF, 4FF or solderable embedded formats. Our expert technical team will be available to answer any questions that you may have. We can also facilitate access to the Vodafone NB-IoT open labs to test your devices.

SIMs are managed and controlled through our industry leading SIM management platform, SIMPro. Low-cost NB-IoT Modules from manufacturers including uBlox, Quectel and others are currently available for mass production. We’d be happy to advise you on what might be the best fit for your devices.

Choosing Wireless Logic for your LPWAN connectivity doesn’t just give you access to our network operator agnostic platform and expertise, but also adds layers of security to your connections. To explore how to start developing your NB-IoT device, please contact us or explore LPWAN further.

Why Wireless Logic for NB-IoT and LTE-M?

Talk to one of our NB-IoT experts about your connectivity needs.
Call us on 0330 056 3300

Contact us

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