When organizations deploy and maintain their fleets of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, one of the most critical decisions they have to make is the choice in connectivity — it impacts the battery life, the roaming locations, and the overall reliability of their devices.
“LoRaWAN and NB-IoT are often considered the best connectivity options for wireless communication for power-constrained IoT devices,” says Richie Gill, director of product management at KORE Wireless, a provider of IoT solutions and services. “They both offer long range and are nicely suited for battery-powered devices.”
Differences Between LoRaWAN and NB-IoT
Gill says LoRaWAN is a non-cellular, low-power, wide-area network designed to connect many devices in massive IoT use cases.
“With its wide reach, low-rate data transmissions, and penetrability, it is well-equipped for indoor and outdoor use cases across vast areas supporting low-complexity devices for long lifecycles,” he says.
LoRaWAN is designed to wirelessly connect battery-powered devices to the Internet, sending small data payloads over distances up to 10 kilometers (approximately 6.2 miles), says Ken Otsuki, head of global carrier relations, business development director at Soracom, a provider of smart IoT connectivity.
“Where LoRa is a wireless modulation technique named for its long-range, LoRaWAN is a protocol that includes communication between a LoRaWAN module/device, a LoRaWAN gateway, and a LoRaWAN network server,” he says.
NB-IoT is a standards-based, low-power, wide-area technology specified by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), says Otsuki. It’s designed to connect a wide range of new IoT devices and services, typically within existing GSM operator networks, using a subset of the LTE standard.
“Compared with standard cellular connectivity, NB-IoT offers lower data throughput but significantly improves user device power consumption, system capacity, and spectrum efficiency, especially in deep coverage areas,” he says. “Battery life in excess of 10 years can be supported for a wide range of use cases.”
NB-IoT supports such low-power, wide-area use cases as energy and utilities, smart cities, assets and logistics, and much more, according to Gill.
From a security perspective, NB-IoT is based on cellular plus SIM security, which enables authentication and encryption/integrity between a device and the network, according to Otsuki.
“LoRaWAN uses a proprietary handshake authentication and key generation process that enables authentication and ciphering/integrity between a device and network server,” he says.
Network availability is a key factor when selecting the right connectivity option, says Gill.
NB-IoT devices can only operate in a licensed spectrum, which means they can only be offered through cellular network providers. As such, their availability is limited to public cellular coverage, he says.
“This makes them great for fleet tracking and asset management in urban environments where devices can easily connect to a wireless network,” Gill says. “For example, NB-IoT is ideal for tracking waste bins, traffic signal sensors, and street light operations.”
Devices using LoRaWAN, on the other hand, do not require licensed spectrum and are easy to deploy using gateways, according to Gill. Consequently, they can be deployed anywhere, including in remote or rural areas without 4G coverage or indoor/underground settings.
“This makes them perfect for long-range deployments in areas with poor or no cellular coverage,” he explains. “For example, LoRaWAN is ideal for monitoring outdoor farming equipment in rural areas and for tracking global supply chain deliveries like shipping cargo.”
Cost of LoRaWAN vs. NB-IoT
Cost is another consideration when deciding between LoRaWAN and NB-IoT.
As a long-range, low-power centralized wireless communication network, LoRaWAN operates in the unlicensed bands and thus has a lower cost of entry compared to cellular networks, such as NB-IoT, says Joshua Wong, CEO of Northern Mechatronics, a provider of IoT wireless modules.
Since NB-IoT operates in the licensed band, its offering is primarily based on existing carriers, and organizations must pay a monthly service fee much like a smartphone plan, he says.
According to Wong, LoRaWAN operates in the unlicensed band, and thus, the cost of deployment and operation are much more flexible.
“A LoRaWAN solution provider can choose to either deploy and operate a private network infrastructure or make use of a LoRaWAN network provider for a service fee,” Wong says.
“This makes LoRaWAN much more flexible and often a lot cheaper than NB-IoT.”
NB-IoT can only be operated by mobile network operators (MNOs) as it is part of licensed band technology, which is more reliable and performs better than unlicensed band technology. LoRaWAN, on the other hand, is open to all players as it uses unlicensed band technology, Otsuki says.
However, while the unlicensed band has a lot of advantages, including lower costs and easier deployment, a module/device has to wait for a certain period before sending another data payload due to the unlicensed band restriction, according to Otsuki.
When Should Companies Use Which Technology?
Determining which protocol to use for IoT connectivity depends less on the type of organization and more on the intended application, according to Otsuki.
For example, for a use case that sends data from a small sensor once a day in a particular city or town, LoRaWAN would likely be a good fit, he says.
“Although the LoRaWAN standard does define a roaming scenario, not all the operators are yet providing interconnection between different LoRaWAN networks,” Otsuki adds.
LoRaWAN is also a natural fit for applications requiring large coverage areas or “radiofrequency-hostile environments” where cellular coverage is insufficient or unavailable, according to Wong.
For a use case that requires IP-based communication and deployment in multiple countries, e.g., the UK and Germany, then NB-IoT will be a better option, according to Otsuki.
And both LoRaWAN and NB-IoT would be suitable for any application involving small data payloads in a static, outdoor environment, e.g., utilities, agriculture, he adds.
The real key for organizations when it comes to deciding whether to deploy LoRaWAN or NB-IoT for IoT connectivity is whether or not sufficient coverage and infrastructure are available in their countries/locations, according to Otsuki.
“NB-IoT nationwide deployment is taking time for many MNOs, and some countries/MNOs have decided not to launch NB-IoT, preferring to focus on LTE-M instead,” he says.
“If a local MNO has not launched NB-IoT yet, then choosing LTE-M or Sigfox might be an alternative option.”
In terms of LoRaWAN, if there is already an operator with nationwide coverage in an organization’s country/location, customer deployment becomes relatively easy, Otsuki says.
“Otherwise, a customer needs to build its own network and gateway, which takes time and requires deeper knowledge of wireless communications,” he says.