NB-IoT is a radio technology standard operating in the licensed frequency band, developed to offer a combination of range and energy-efficiency.
The rapid growth in digitalization and IoT, which connects different types of products to simplify functions in the society, requires new communication technologies that allow for long range and high energy-efficiency.
Standard and compatibility
NB-IoT refers to a category of standards developed by 3GPP, an umbrella organization working with standardization for mobile telecommunication networks. NB-IoT was fist standardised in 3GPP Release 13 as “LTE category NB1”, later updated with NB2 in Release 14. The standard basically covers how an NB-IoT device shall function and communicate in a telecommunications network and the different mechanisms available for saving power (battery). The latter is a very important part, but the power saving functions are not mandatory, so the device’s actual battery performance ultimately depends on what functions the network provider currently supports. Guidelines are developed to make this as homogenous as possible between different telecom providers.
The standard covers all communication layers up to the transport layer. This means that an NB-IoT device is essentially like a computer connected to the internet. While this facilitates for a wide range of different protocols that can be used, it also allows for a high dissimilarity between how different NB-IoT devices are operated and how metering data is encoded.
NB-IoT has often been put into head to head competition with LoRaWAN for the title of “best IoT radio technology”. Rather than choosing a winner this might be more of a choice of which eco-system to invest in and how the infrastructure should be managed. NB-IoT is managed by telecom operators, giving you defined service level but reliant on their geographical coverage. For LoRaWAN there are service providers, just like telecom operators, but you could also choose to build your own network infrastructure and expanding a LoRaWAN network is relatively inexpensive.
As with all telecommunication radio technologies NB-IoT performance is dependent on the overall quality and capacity of the service provider and damping of the signal caused by physical objects between sender and receiver. Compared to other radio solutions, NB-IoT offers high penetration (ability to pass through physical objects) which makes it suitable for deep indoor placement.
NB-IoT delivers a comparably (LPWAN) high bandwidth and capable downlink (server to device) capacity. This enables more data demanding applications, over the air updates and flexible schemes for retrieving data (such as queries for missing data, historical data sets and verbose log information). This capacity in combination with being a technology adapted to complex telecommunication networks, comes with the cost of being more power hungry and having a less predictable power consumption over time. Albeit this, constrained battery operation for well above 10 years is achievable with reasonably sized battery cells.
For customers that wishes to use telecom operators for their infrastructure, NB-IoT is ideal for more demanding sensor and metering applications. Both being at a lower cost point compared to other mobile telecommunication solutions and offering an energy efficient solution for battery operated devices. It is important to also include the network provider in the equation when looking at suitableness to assure that service level is adequate, especially in more rural areas.