Many countries and network operators globally have rolled out or are in the process of rolling out Cat-M1 (also known as LTE M or LTE CAT M) and NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT) networks.
These networks operate on different bandwidths across the 4G spectrum, catering to a variety of IoT applications.
You can view Cat-M1 and NB-IoT Deployments in your region here.
Our 4G device range uses the uBlox SARA R410M modem, which can support *both Cat-M1 and Nb-IoT networks.
*Devices are configured when they are provisioned for use on either network, they do not roam across Cat-M1 and NB-IoT.
Both Cat-M1 and NB-IoT are low-power, wide-area networks (LPWAN) that enable the deployment of immense amounts of low-power, low-complexity devices which do not need to send data frequently (sensors, utility meters, wearables, asset trackers, etc).
However, there are several key differences in terms of what bandwidths they operate in, data transfer volume and speed, cellular tower hand over, power consumption, and price, making each suited for different types of use cases and tracking applications.
NB-IoT uses a very narrow bandwidth (200kHz), compared to Cat-M1 which uses 1.4MHz (7x larger)! Bandwidth is the width or capacity of the channel in which data can be transferred.
Data Transfer Rate
As a result of NB-IoT’s narrow bandwidth, the maximum upload data transfer rate is around 62.5kb per second. The upload data rate on Cat-M1 is about six times faster in half duplex mode - up to 380kbps.
Cellular Tower Handover
Cat-M1 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.
Both networks provide excellent range and penetration, particularly when compared to 2G or 3G networks.
An NB-IoT modem uses slightly less energy to transfer data than a Cat-M1 modem. But because of NB-IoT’s slower data transfer rates, uploads take longer than Cat-M1. So, power consumption on either network is similar and very low.
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.
While Cat-M1 and NB-IoT are both relatively new networks, Cat-M1 appears to be far more established globally with many countries launching excellent, commercially ready networks. The same cannot be said for NB-IoT at this stage, but this may change in future. We hope it does!
Cat-M1 vs NB-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.
- 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.
Cat-M1, 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.
Click to enlarge. Image Credit: Sierra Wireless.
Understanding connectivity options in IoT is critical. Though Cat-M1 is certainly more powerful and robust than NB-IoT, these future-proofed networks can be complementary and are both suitable for different tracking and monitoring applications.
If you are connecting hundreds of sensors or monitors which report infrequently, NB-IoT is likely the right cellular connectivity choice for your needs. If you are tracking high-value assets or require more frequent updates from the devices, Cat-M1 is better suited.
As one of the earliest adopters of Cat-M1 and NB-IoT technologies, our experience has shown Cat-M1 to be more mature and better supported globally as of the end of 2019.
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, Cat-M1 has proven to be a suitable replacement for 3G, and we confidently supply devices for use on both networks.
NB-IoT has been more challenging. 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. We hope to see improvements in NB-IoT capabilities in the future.
Our experience with both networks can be summarised as:
- Cat-M1 on the SIM's home network: Highly confident and very well-proven.
- Cat-M1 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 prior to deployment.
- NB-IoT with a roaming SIM: We have not seen this work yet but hope to have an update soon as network roaming agreements progress.
Get in touch with us today to discuss connectivity options and hardware for your unique tracking applications.