4G and 5G GPS Trackers – Cellular IoT in GPS Asset Tracking

Digital Matter

This article was originally published in August 2020 and has been updated with our recent developments!

 

Greater network coverage, lower device costs, and superior device functionality is moving asset tracking towards a ‘mainstream’ enterprise requirement, with Cellular IoT set to dominate the asset tracking market.

With 2G and 3G network sunsets accelerating globally, businesses around the world are upgrading their asset tracking hardware to LTE-M and NB-IoT: Low-Power Wide-Area Cellular Networks designed for the Internet of Things. These Cellular networks are particularly well suited for battery-powered asset tracking applications, like trailer, bin, container, livestock and equipment tracking, as they support incredibly low power consumption for longer battery life, improved range and penetration indoors, and overall better performance!

In this article, we discuss the differences between LTE-M and NB-IoT networks, their use in GPS asset tracking, and our experiences deploying 4G / 5G GPS tracker devices across both networks around the world.

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, also commonly referred to as Mobile 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 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 as consumer cellular devices, which transmit large, 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.

So, when we talk about our 4G or 5G GPS trackers device range, we are referring to Cellular IoT networks, specifically LTE-M and NB-IoT, which were originally introduced as part of the 4G-LTE specification back in 2016. Both 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).

Mobile Connectivity Evolution of Industrial Value

Image: From 2G to 5G: The history of mobile connectivity

For a more in-depth look at evolving LTE specifications, we suggest you check out GSMA’s article on Mobile IoT in the 5G Future.

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.

BandwidthNB-IoT uses a very narrow bandwidth (200kHz), compared to LTE-M which uses 1.4Mhz (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 RateAs 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 HandoverLTE-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. For many battery-powered asset tracking applications, this is of little consequence.

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

PowerAn 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-AirDevice 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 Asset Tracking Applications

NB-IoT is generally very well suited for sensor monitoring and data logging applications, where a very high volume (hundreds to thousands) of generally stationary assets report infrequently! This is often referred to as Massive IoT.

Did my asset move today? – No
Is the fire alarm powered – Yes

Is the emergency exit sign powered – Yes
Soil moisture – 22%

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 vehicles, trailers, equipment, cold chain monitoring, or other tracking applications where assets are frequently moving, and greater volumes of tracking data is required.

If only one network exists in your region, either is acceptable to use with any of our 4G / 5G GPS tracker devices. Often availability will be the primary driver in your solution.

NB-IoT vs Cat-M1
Image: LTE-M vs. NB-IoT: What are the Differences?

A Maturing IoT Asset Tracking Ecosystem

We launched our first 4G asset tracking device in early 2018. Since then, we have seen both network coverage and low-power modem technology mature significantly.

In August 2020, GSMA reported 43 LTE-M Networks and 96 NB-IoT Networks across the world. As of May 2022, deployments have grown to 60 LTE-M Networks and 110 NB-IoT Networks. You can check NB-IoT and LTE-M Cellular IoT deployments in your country here.

Our early experience with both LTE-M and NB-IoT had shown LTE-M to be more mature and better supported. Over the last two years, however, the cellular IoT landscape has matured dramatically. In 2018, for example, it was oftentimes difficult to even connect to an NB-IoT network, and using a roaming SIM on these networks was out of the question. This is no longer the case and we have seen many NB-IoT success stories of late. Performance has been excellent.

Our next-generation of 5G GPS tracker devices launched late last year also now support global roaming between LTE-M and NB-IoT networks with minimal delay and marginal impact on battery life or performance. Automatic roaming between Cellular LPWAN networks enables new low-power, indoor/outdoor global asset tracking applications in connected packaging, parts and inventory management, supply chain management, shipping and logistics, and more!

Our cellular IoT asset tracking experience as of May 2022 with both networks can be summarized as:

LTE-M on SIM’s Home Network
Highly confident, well-proven

LTE-M with a Roaming SIM
Confident, well-proven over many years. It is important to apply the relevant APN and bandmasks for best performance. Battery drain will be slightly greater when out of coverage on a roaming SIM when compared to a ‘home’ SIM.

NB-IoT Home Network SIM
Confident, well-proven. In general, NB-IoT networks are ‘younger’ than LTE-M in many regions, so some minor teething issues (which have since been resolved for LTE-M) may remain on certain NB-IoT networks. However, issues are fast becoming few and far between.

NB-IoT with a Roaming SIM
Confident – this has improved greatly over the last 12 months

Explore Our 5G GPS Trackers

Build a better Cellular IoT asset tracking solution with the largest portfolio of certified and integration-ready LPWAN LTE-M and NB-IoT GPS asset tracking devices and the widest range of location technology options including GNSS, WiFi Positioning, Cell Tower Positioning, and Bluetooth® Low Energy!

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View our knowledge base to learn more about selecting a SIM provider based on your region and use case, or get in touch with us today to discuss 4G and 5G GPS tracker solutions in your region!

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