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Understanding Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) Networks

The differences and benefits of LTE-M and NB-IoT

Since the introduction of IoT, the business world has seen an explosion of possibilities through connected devices. At the same time, more businesses are talking about, and using, low-power, wide-area (LPWA) network technologies like LTE-M and NB-IoT. But with various options (and acronyms), it can be a challenge for business and IT decision makers to know which type of IoT network is right for the connected solution they’re planning to implement.

The good news is that many of these technologies complement each other. Once you understand how these technologies work and how they differ, it’s easier to see the benefits for your business.

Defining Low Power Wide Area Networks

A low-power, wide-area network can facilitate the deployment and operation of many connected devices across a wide area, and it requires far less power, less maintenance and ultimately involves less cost. Simply put, LPWA technology works well in situations where devices need to send a small amount of data over a wide area while maintaining battery life for many years. They are well suited for static applications in densely developed locations, like smart cities, as well as widely dispersed and mobile applications such as fleet monitoring and mobile asset tracking, to name a few.

For businesses looking to take advantage of LPWA network technology, there are a few connectivity options to consider.

Understanding LTE-M and NB-IoT

LTE-M (Long-Term Evolution for Machines) and NB-IoT (Narrow Band IoT) are both good connectivity options for LPWA networks and can benefit businesses in different ways depending on the application. So, which is right for your business? There are a number of factors to consider, including whether your solution is mobile or fixed; the amount of data your devices transmit; how much latency your application will tolerate; and your coverage/penetration requirements.

LTE-M offers higher throughput with lower latency compared to NB-IoT, meaning it can send more information with faster reaction times. This makes LTE-M well suited for applications that require minimal latency such as transportation and supply chain tracking where information being collected by connected devices needs to be sent in real-time. Extended battery life makes long-term deployment possible, reducing maintenance and operation costs. LTE-M is also ideal for mobile use cases because it handles hand‑over between cell towers, making it ideal for IoT devices that are not stationary such as mobile asset tracking, wearables and voice communication.  

On the other hand, NB-IoT is best suited for simpler, static applications that don’t rely on real-time communications. This is because NB-IoT is not able to manage hand-over between cell towers. Unlike LTE-M that can automatically connect from one tower to the next, NB-IoT would have to re‑establish a new connection at some point after a new network tower is reached.

Where NB-IoT does excel is in its ability for mass connection of IoT devices across a wide area with slightly better coverage and penetration and very low power consumption. It can do this by limiting the bandwidth it uses to a single narrow-band. This makes NB-IoT well suited for applications such as smart meters, waste tracking, pipeline management and other static applications that don’t require up-to-the-minute alerts. The key to NB-IoT is in its ability to reliably send information at regular increments to the cloud, for example, on a mass scale.

Low-power, wide-area networks are making mass connectivity of IoT devices possible thanks to reliable connectivity, improved battery life, reduced device cost and enhanced coverage. And, depending on your business and application needs, LTE-M and NB-IoT are two connectivity options that enable you to take advantage of this new technology across a wide variety of sectors. Expect to see more articles and information about both connectivity options in the near future.