We often get asked about LTE-M and NB-IoT availability. They are both great connectivity options for IoT that offer lower power consumption, deep penetration, smaller form factors, and lower costs. But there’s a lot of confusion in the marketplace about the strengths of each technology.
The decision on which technology standard to use is not easy. When I looked for a clear answer, I quickly became lost in a maze of acronyms. Now I have a clear picture of how the two technologies compare, and I hope it helps you grip your cellular connectivity technology choice!
If you ask the internet, you’ll generally hear that NB-IoT supports devices in deeper places than LTE-M. But is this really the case? Recently, researchers and industry peers have shown this presumption is not clear-cut.
Maximum Coupling Loss (MCL)
3GPP uses MCL to evaluate coverage. In theory, it can be defined as the maximum loss in the conducted power level that a system can tolerate and still be operational (defined by a minimum acceptable received power level). A higher MCL means a more robust link between transmitter and receiver.
MCL for NB-IoT and LTE-M
3GPP’s website refers to the book Cellular Internet of Things (Second Edition) From Massive Deployments to Critical 5G Applications as a source for more information on Nb-IoT and LTE-M.
According to the book, the MCLs on 4G telecom technology are:
- LTE-M: 160.7 dB
- NB-IoT: 164 dB
On 5G telecom technology, the MCLs for both NB-IoT and LTE-M (with the requirement of supporting a connection density of 1,000,000 devices per km2) must be 164 dB.
So, according to those MCLs, NB-IoT and LTE-M have the same penetration depth on 5G.
On 4G, LTE-M falls behind the NB-IoT by 3.3 dB (160.7 dB), meaning that NB-IoT has a better penetration depth than LTE-M on 4G telecom networks.
LTE-M Research: What Does It Show?
However, prominent companies in the telecom industry have conducted simulations based on the assumptions 3GPP has made. They researched the coverage for LTE-M and its suitability for IoT applications that need deep coverage. LTE-M has a very similar penetration ability to other LPWA technologies.
According to Sierra Wireless Chief Engineer Gus Vos, “LTE-M supports a very similar if not better coverage enhancement compared to other LPWA technologies.” Why? It turns out the assumptions underlying 3GPP’s MCL calculations varied between technologies and thus was not a fair comparison.
Both NB-IoT and LTE-M are well suited for deep penetration. Research shows that LTE-M can attain the same penetration depth as NB-IoT (but at the cost of extra power consumption? You can read more on this below).
However, it’s important to keep in mind that the parameters involved in tests and simulations around the penetration capabilities could vary a lot from device to device, cell tower to cell tower, etc.
As a final note, a disadvantage that NB-IoT has here compared to LTE-M is that NB-IoT is not available to wholesale. Currently, your device will only have access to a subset of base stations in a country when using NB-IoT. LTE-M already has wholesale agreements available, meaning today, it’s possible to attach to multiple LTE-M networks from one device, thus increasing the chance of finding a strong enough connection.
Global Deployment and Roaming
NB-IoT can be deployed on both 2G (GSM) and 4G (LTE) networks, while LTE-M is solely for 4G. However, LTE-M is already compatible with the existing LTE network, while NB-IoT uses DSSS modulation, which requires specific hardware. Both are planned to be available on 5G. These factors, plus some others, impact availability around the world.
Fortunately, GSMA has a handy resource called the Mobile IoT Deployment Map. In it, you can see the global deployment of NB-IoT and LTE-M technologies.
Operators typically deployed LTE-M first in countries that had LTE coverage already (e.g., the US). It’s relatively easier to upgrade an existing LTE tower to support LTE-M than to add NB-IoT support.
However, if LTE is not supported already, it is cheaper to put up new NB-IoT infrastructure.
Another factor to consider is that companies like Huawei are pretty invested in NB-IoT intellectual property (IP) and support its rollout.
Deployment is something you will need to consider if you are sending a device somewhere. And if that device is not staying in the same place forever or you’re not sure where in the world it will deploy, you’ll also need to consider the nuances of roaming with LTE-M and NB-IoT.
LTE-M has the advantage of having cellular roaming agreements already in place, while NB-IoT is far behind. Therefore roaming for NB-IoT is comparatively limited.
Global Deployment and Roaming Decisions
The decisions here depend on where your device will be situated and whether or not it will need roaming. If your device might need to roam, LTE-M is your natural choice.
If your device will be static in, e.g., China, then NB-IoT is currently the choice that makes sense.
Nevertheless, NB-IoT and LTE-M are still in their early days, and it’s currently helpful to have 2G or 4G fallback options, for example.
Traditional cellular standards are designed to function with voice and SMS, and so are always listening for incoming calls. But most IoT Applications don’t require that devices listen, which means traditional standards (2G, 3G, 4G) use more power than NB-IoT and LTE-M.
Long battery lifetimes are essential in many modern IoT applications. Think of Applications like smart waste management, asset management, and environmental sensors here.
NB-IoT and LTE-M represent a significant improvement in power consumption compared to other cellular standards. However, comparing the two IoT connectivity solutions is tricky due to the many factors influencing power consumption and battery lifetime.
Power Saving Features
Both technologies support PSM (power saving mode) and eDRX (Extended Discontinuous Reception), which extend battery life. The video below has a good overview of these two features (NB eMTC is a subset of LTE-M).
However, in practice, it’s crucial that you thoroughly test these features on your device first. While they are great in theory, using them may not be straightforward. We discussed this in a recent webinar with LightBug CEO and Founder Chris Guest. LightBug experienced difficulties in getting these power-saving features to work reliably and instead created their own “sleep” logic for their tracking devices.
Power Usage During Transmission
Factors such as coupling loss (coverage conditions) will significantly affect the uplink and downlink speeds. You could say that in good conditions, LTE-M will reap the rewards of faster data speeds. However, in bad conditions, NB-IoT may have faster data speeds.
Power consumption in NB-IoT and LTE-M is heavily dependant on your particular Applications and the devices you use. A straight comparison between the two technologies is complicated as many variables dictate power consumption (transmission frequency, transmission size, coupling loss).
When moving, your device will need to switch between base stations (aka cell towers) frequently. The image below is from a study by Fabien Sanglard and elegantly shows how his phone jumped between base stations while moving.
As you can see, there are a lot of handovers between base stations in a short journey. This handover process is about your device’s connection being seamlessly transferred from one base station to another.
NB-IoT isn’t capable of this kind of seamless handover. As a device moves out of the cell tower range, it will increase the power (conductive Tx power) to stay connected. Once it becomes disconnected, it must register with the network again, causing a connectivity drop and increasing power consumption.
It’s simple here, use LTE-M for mobile devices.
Freedom to Leave
Freedom to leave (aka freedom to operate) is not often discussed in our industry as it’s not commonly available. But it’s something that runs to the core of Onomondo (and is possible because of our network core), so it would be a shame not to look into the possibilities here for the two technologies as well.
In short, freedom to leave is about the ability to transfer a SIM to a new operator over the air (or load a new operator profile onto the SIM). If you don’t have the freedom to leave and haven’t already got support for your desired operator on deployed SIMs, you’ll need to physically visit all of your devices to swap SIM cards to change operator. Visiting devices to switch SIMs is generally either very expensive or almost impossible.
Most will tell you this is not a problem with eUICC. But there is still an issue with vendor lock-in for eUICC thanks to eUICC platforms, meaning you don’t have total freedom to operate with your SIMs.
Onomondo makes it possible to switch operators on regular UICC SIMs via over-the-air (OTA) updates. We can do this thanks to our network setup and our complete control over our SIMs’ IMSI, Ki, and OPC keys, a vital part of switching operators.
Most operators don’t support SMS on NB-IoT. This means eUICC will not work in many networks, and Onomondo’s OTA operator updates are also impossible. According to the GSMA NB-IoT deployment guide from June 2019, “Only some operators deploying NB-IoT will support SMS. Thus no clear deployment recommendation can be provided at this time.”
LTE-M supports OTA updates. Additionally, the higher bandwidths of LTE-M make the transmission of SIM profiles easier (or any software update, for that matter). If you are considering eUICC, then it’s best to go for LTE-M. eUICC most probably won’t work in your region(s) of interest on NB-IoT.
Additionally, NB-IoT is more of an operator lock-in risk as switching operators are generally not possible OTA.
Strong Technology Standards
Based on the above considerations, you can see that LTE-M and NB-IoT are both strong technology standards for IoT applications.
- Coverage/Penetration: LTE-M is probably as good as NB-IoT.
- Global deployment and roaming: Roaming is better with LTE-M. However, it’s important to check availability in your region(s) of interest.
- Power consumption: This is a hard one to call. It appears that LTE-M is better in good to average coverage conditions, and NB-IoT is better in poor coverage conditions.
- Mobility: LTE-M is suitable for static and mobile devices, while NB-IoT is only suitable for static.
- Freedom to leave: LTE-M supports freedom to leave and eUICC, NB-IoT generally doesn’t.
My opinion is that LTE-M is overall the more robust choice for IoT solutions. If you add that OTA firmware updates are easier with LTE-M and that it’s voice-ready, it’s the more flexible solution of the two and represents a solid, future-proofed connectivity choice.