Major mobile networks and media outlets have been trumpeting the arrival of 5G – and with good reason! The 5th Generation cellular network technology boasts super-fast speeds, improved responsiveness, and extremely low latency.

But with the emergence of 5G, one may ask “What about those amazing 4G GPS tracking devices I just bought?”

4G / 5G – Gee, this is confusing

The GPS tracking devices or sensors you attach to your assets are useless without a way to communicate the data they collect – whether that’s location, temperature, on/off status, etc.

Cellular IoT connects devices using existing mobile networks, which makes a lot of sense considering 95% of the global population lives in an area covered by at least a basic 2G network.

Most IoT and GPS devices, especially those installed on assets that don’t move very often, do not require the same speed or bandwidth of consumer cellular devices, which transmit huge, rich packets of data. Cellular IoT networks, then, transmit small packets of simple data periodically, for example, the GPS coordinates of an asset once a day.

Cellular IoT networks are low-power, wide area networks (LPWANs) that enable extremely long battery life, better coverage and range, and low-cost hardware and connectivity options.

The latest news is that both 4G LTE-M and NB-IoT networks are now formally recognized as 5G technologies, which means the networks, and our LTE-M / NB-IoT devices will be supported long after 4G network shutdowns (which aren’t anticipated for quite a while).

For a more in-depth look at evolving LTE specifications and how it benefits fleet management, you could check out this article: LTE Cat-M1 / NB-IoT in Fleets.

What’s the difference between LTE-M and NB-IoT?

So now that we know LTE-M and NB-IoT networks are here to stay for the foreseeable future, what are the differences between the two?

Both LTE-M (often also referred to as Cat-M1) and Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) are Cellular IoT networks used specifically for Internet of Things and Machine to Machine (M2M) applications.

Bandwidth – NB-IoT uses a very narrow bandwidth (200kHz), compared to LTE-M which uses 1.4GHz (7000x larger)! Bandwidth is the width or capacity of the channel in which data can be transferred. Think lanes on a freeway – more lanes mean more cars can get along the freeway in a given time period. Bandwidth is the width of the road here.

Data Transfer Rate – As a result of NB-IoT’s narrow bandwidth, the maximum data transfer rate is around 250kb per second. The data rate on LTE-M is about four times faster – up to 1Mbps.

Cellular Tower Handover – LTE-M supports cell tower handover, which refers to the process of transferring a connection from one cellular tower to another. NB-IoT does not support cell tower handover, and the connection will be dropped if a device moves out of range.

Range – Both networks provide excellent range and penetration, particularly when compared to 2G or 3G networks.

Power – An NB-IoT modem uses slightly less energy to transfer data than an LTE-M modem. But because of NB-IoT’s slower data transfer rates, uploads take longer than LTE-M. So, power consumption on either network is similar and very low.

Firmware Over-The-Air – Device firmware can be updated remotely over-the-air on both networks. However, larger OTA updates on NB-IoT may result in substantial power-use given the network’s slow transfer rate.

Cellular IoT in Tracking Applications

In tracking, NB-IoT is well suited for sensor monitoring and data logging applications, where a very high volume (hundreds to thousands) of generally stationary assets report infrequently.

Because NB-IoT devices operate on a smaller bandwidth, the devices themselves are also less-complex and often more affordable to produce: Simpler antennas and less complicated firmware cater to the ability to install and operate hundreds, if not thousands of devices affordably.

LTE-M, then, is better suited for tracking vehiclestrailersequipmentcold chain monitoring, or other tracking applications where assets are frequently moving, and greater volumes of tracking data is required.

Global Deployments

As of August 2020, GSMA reports 43 LTE-M Networks and 96 NB-IoT Networks across the world. You can check NB-IoT and LTE-M Cellular IoT deployments in your country here.

According to Digital Matter experience as of August 2020 with both networks:

LTE-M on the SIM’s home network: Highly confident and very well-proven.
LTE-M with a roaming SIM: With the right Access Point Name (APN) settings, confident, and well-proven.
NB-IoT on the SIM’s home network: Experience varies greatly between networks and regions. Significant testing should be completed before deployment.
NB-IoT with a roaming SIM: Digital Matter has not seen this work yet but hopes to have an update soon as network roaming agreements progress.

In deploying thousands of LTE-M and NB-IoT devices, Digital Matter has found LTE-M to be more mature and better supported globally. In the US, AT&T coverage has been reliable and extensive. In Australia, Telstra coverage has also been reliable and extensive. In both the US and Australia, LTE-M has proven to be a suitable replacement for 3G, and we confidently supply devices for use on both networks.

Digital Matter has had varied success with NB-IoT, specifically facing challenges around standards as operators continue deploying their networks. Digital Matter recently released new firmware and a Wired Provisioning Tool to simplify NB-IoT deployments. Europe is the primary driver for this technology, and each territory has different challenges. Global roaming SIM cards are more popular in these regions, and these also pose a variety of technical challenges.

NB-IoT roaming has also not proven successful, so using a ‘non-home network’ SIM is risky. Roaming triggers NB-IoT network scans, which are very battery intensive, and can be costly in applications where battery life is important.