Are NB-IoT and LoRA really competing for the same market?

By: Shahzad Nadeem
Head of Smart Cities

6th February 2020

4 minute read

Home » LoRa

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.
bluetooh, bluetooth BLE, wifi, IOT technologies

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.

lpwan, iot, comparison

iot, module shipment forecasts
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.

Longevity

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.

Coverage

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.

Data rate

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.

Mobility

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.

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.
bluetooh, bluetooth BLE, wifi, IOT technologies

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.

lpwan, iot, comparison

iot, module shipment forecasts
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.

Longevity

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.

Coverage

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.

Data rate

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.

Mobility

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.

Nick Koiza, Head of Security Business, features in Cambridge Wireless News this week.

The role of IoT in facilitating effective safe city solutions is currently a hot topic. Plextek has been deploying numerous IoT sensor solutions over the years and in this article, Nick Koiza, Head of Security Business, assesses key drivers and strategies for successfully fulfilling smart sensing solutions from a public safety perspective.

To read the full article click here.

All 'Things' to be considered in IoT

All ‘Things’ to be Considered in IoT

Richard Emmerson - Senior Consultant, Communications Systems

By: Richard Emmerson
Senior Consultant, Communications Systems

3rd May 2017

Home » LoRa

So you have a great idea for an internet connected ‘Thing’. You’ve done the business plan, you’ve raised some investment, or maybe you’re staking your own money. All you have to do now is connect your ‘Thing’ to ‘The Internet of Things (IoT)’ and get the product into the market.

Well, there are a few things you should consider before you jump in.

How will the ‘Thing’ connect?

Surely that’s simple, everyone’s using LoRa (long-range, low-power radio), so I can buy some LoRa modules, connect them to my ‘Thing’ and I’m done.

Well, yes and no.

Range, Data Rate & Power Consumption

With any communications system, there is a direct trade-off between range, data rate and power consumption. LoRa is potentially a great system for IoT. When properly designed, it can achieve long range (typically 2 km in urban areas and line of sight in rural areas) and have a battery life that can last for years. However, data rates are limited to between 0.3 kbps to 50 kbps; with the longest range achieved at the lowest data rate. In the EU 868 MHz band, the duty cycle is also limited to 1%, meaning, at the lowest data rate, only 51 user bytes can be sent every 245 seconds. This is fine for a smoke alarm but unsuitable for a security camera.

For higher data rate applications, a 3G or 4G modem module may be a better choice, provided the power is available. For power limited systems, there is also the Narrowband IoT system, which uses the 4G mobile network with data rates between 20-250 kbps and offers impressive battery life.

What about base stations?

BaseStationLoRa can be used in a peer-to-peer mode (communication between nodes). To connect to the internet though requires some kind of base station. This could be a local base station installed in the home or office, or a wide area base station (LoRa-WAN). You might choose to supply customers with their own low-cost base stations, or take advantage of public networks such as ‘The Things Network’.

An alternative may be to use the ’Sigfox’ system. This has similar performance to LoRa but for a small subscription fee accesses an international network of base stations owned and managed by Sigfox. Unlike Sigfox and cellular systems, LoRa has the advantage that if there is no coverage then you can simply add your own base station.

What about the Antenna?

AntennaBoardThe antenna is a key part of any wireless system and is an area where many developers face problems. In order to work efficiently, antennas need an effective area which is made up of the antenna itself and the circuit board it is connected to. Look carefully at the datasheet for that tiny 868 MHz ‘chip’ antenna and you are likely to see that it requires a PCB of approximately 90 mm length.

However, this poses a problem for small devices operating at 868 MHz, as the antenna is unlikely to be efficient, and that 2km range you expected just reduced to 500 m or less. The antenna may also become de-tuned by the presence of breaks in the PCB ground plane, nearby components and caseworks require a matching network to compensate for these effects. For really small devices, it may be worth considering Bluetooth, which with its higher operating frequency of 2.4 GHz requires a smaller PCB, and, with the release of Bluetooth 5, can be used for local area networks.

So that’s it?

Well, not quite. LoRa and Sigfox use the licence free 868 MHz ISM band in Europe and 915 MHz band in the US. Both of which are prone to interference from other users. There is also the platform, encryption, data ownership, and regulatory approvals to consider.

So you have a great idea for an internet connected ‘Thing’. You’ve done the business plan, you’ve raised some investment, or maybe you’re staking your own money. All you have to do now is connect your ‘Thing’ to ‘The Internet of Things (IoT)’ and get the product into the market.

Well, there are a few things you should consider before you jump in.

How will the ‘Thing’ connect?

Surely that’s simple, everyone’s using LoRa (long-range, low-power radio), so I can buy some LoRa modules, connect them to my ‘Thing’ and I’m done.

Well, yes and no.

Range, Data Rate & Power Consumption

With any communications system, there is a direct trade-off between range, data rate and power consumption. LoRa is potentially a great system for IoT. When properly designed, it can achieve long range (typically 2 km in urban areas and line of sight in rural areas) and have a battery life that can last for years. However, data rates are limited to between 0.3 kbps to 50 kbps; with the longest range achieved at the lowest data rate. In the EU 868 MHz band, the duty cycle is also limited to 1%, meaning, at the lowest data rate, only 51 user bytes can be sent every 245 seconds. This is fine for a smoke alarm but unsuitable for a security camera.

For higher data rate applications, a 3G or 4G modem module may be a better choice, provided the power is available. For power limited systems, there is also the Narrowband IoT system, which uses the 4G mobile network with data rates between 20-250 kbps and offers impressive battery life.

What about base stations?

BaseStationLoRa can be used in a peer-to-peer mode (communication between nodes). To connect to the internet though requires some kind of base station. This could be a local base station installed in the home or office, or a wide area base station (LoRa-WAN). You might choose to supply customers with their own low-cost base stations, or take advantage of public networks such as ‘The Things Network’.

An alternative may be to use the ’Sigfox’ system. This has similar performance to LoRa but for a small subscription fee accesses an international network of base stations owned and managed by Sigfox. Unlike Sigfox and cellular systems, LoRa has the advantage that if there is no coverage then you can simply add your own base station.

What about the Antenna?

AntennaBoardThe antenna is a key part of any wireless system and is an area where many developers face problems. In order to work efficiently, antennas need an effective area which is made up of the antenna itself and the circuit board it is connected to. Look carefully at the datasheet for that tiny 868 MHz ‘chip’ antenna and you are likely to see that it requires a PCB of approximately 90 mm length.

However, this poses a problem for small devices operating at 868 MHz, as the antenna is unlikely to be efficient, and that 2km range you expected just reduced to 500 m or less. The antenna may also become de-tuned by the presence of breaks in the PCB ground plane, nearby components and caseworks require a matching network to compensate for these effects. For really small devices, it may be worth considering Bluetooth, which with its higher operating frequency of 2.4 GHz requires a smaller PCB, and, with the release of Bluetooth 5, can be used for local area networks.

So that’s it?

Well, not quite. LoRa and Sigfox use the licence free 868 MHz ISM band in Europe and 915 MHz band in the US. Both of which are prone to interference from other users. There is also the platform, encryption, data ownership, and regulatory approvals to consider.

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