Are NB-IoT and LoRA really competing for the same market?
By: Shahzad Nadeem
Head of Smart Cities
6th February 2020
4 minute read
The growth of IoT devices and their applications demand capabilities never imagined before in communication technologies. IoT applications usually have specific requirements such as low cost, low power, long range and low data rates. Technologies like Zigbee, WiFi, 2G, 3G, and 4G don’t always meet these requirements which are often presented as the “Tens of IoT”. The IoT devices are supposed to have a battery life of 10 years, cost as low as $10 a piece, should be accessible from 10 km, send less than 10 bytes per hour and the base station should cater for 10,000 devices. These demands lay the foundations of Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) technologies like NB-IoT, LoRA and SigFox. SigFox and LoRa were initially developed by French companies around 2010. LoRA alliance standardised the LoRA protocols, SigFox is in discussions with 3GPP for standardisation and the development of NB-IoT standards is led by 3GPP. The backing from major market players is making LoRa and NB-IoT more attractive for IoT use cases compared to SigFox. In this article we are going to compare LoRa and NB-IoT with respect to their technical capabilities, market penetration and future prospects.
NB-IoT is a cellular technology based on the LTE network architecture. It works in licensed bands and piggy-backs on deployed cellular infrastructure. The potential of integration on top of the deployed cellular infrastructure makes it the technology of choice for mobile network operators who want to make best use of their licensed bands and deployed networks. While LoRa network needs deployment from scratch, the long term operational costs are lower because of the use of unlicensed ISM bands (868 MHz in Europe, 433 MHz in Asia and 915 MHz in North America) which makes it ideal for the low budget small scale deployments.
Courtesy – IHS Market: An in-depth view into the competition, applications and influencers driving the foundation of IoT
Adoption and support
NB-IoT is devloped by 3GPP which is a recognised standards body that developed the 3G and LTE standards. NB-IoT is supported by the Chinese government which has influenced the adoption and penetration of NB-IoT. Companies like Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom are the early adopters in Europe. LoRA, however, is the technology of choice for low cost private IoT networks. LoRA is supported by the LoRa Alliance – a non-profit and open source association of 500+ members promoting the free use of LoRa protocols. IHS Markit in their white paper ‘Connectivity Technologies’ say “LoRa has earned a leading role in the LPWAN market after shipping over 32 million nodes in 2017 and growing to over 57 million nodes in 2018”. According to LoRa Alliance more than 83 public network operators are currently using LoRaWAN. GSMA claims that 40 countries are in the process of deploying NB-IoT networks.
Cost vs Quality
LoRa took an early lead in private network deployments owing to its low cost due to free band use, cheaper infrastructure and low device cost. When it comes to public networks there is a stiff competition with NB-IoT, however. The use of free spectrum by LoRa puts restrictions in terms of maximum power output and duty cycle to limit the interference. The cost vs quality trade-off is usually the deciding factor between LoRa and NB-IoT. Applications requiring low latency and guaranteed QoS will prefer NB-IoT over LoRA.
IoT devices are supposed to have long battery life as these could be deployed in remote areas. The QoS, low latency, synchronous communication and higher device current require a higher energy use and render a shorter battery life to NB-IoT compared to LoRa. The applications that do not need low latency would prefer LoRa if battery life is the main concern.
Better link budget gives a coverage edge to NB-IoT over LoRA. It is quite clear though that due to its reliance on the LTE network, NB-IoT may have limited coverage in rural areas. LoRa however, with low infrastructure costs, can be readily deployed to get coverage where no LTE infrastructure exists.
The applications requiring higher than 50 Kbps need NB-IoT deployment which runs at 250Kbps peak data rate. LoRA, however, offers rate adaptation thus reducing the channel use and interference.
IoT applications requiring mobility prefer LoRa over NB-IoT as the later works on cell reselection in Idle mode which does not offer optimum mobility support. LoRA network however, allows transmission to multiple base stations hence no need for handover.
LoRA and NB-IoT, although competing for the LPWAN market in general, have strengths and weaknesses that make them ideal for specific applications and market segments. Whilst LoRA is more suited for low cost, low bandwidth, local area and private network deployments, NB-IoT would be adopted for more sensitive applications requiring higher bandwidth, low latency and guaranteed QoS. It can be said with confidence that although seen as competing technologies, they will develop their own niche markets and co-exist for a long time.
How do you see the future of LoRA and NB-IoT? Let us know your thoughts.