NB-IoT: the mobile industry’s response to non-cellular LPWAN


Cellular simply means that they use cellular technologies, just like smartphones, for example. A cell is essentially an area covered by a cell site, and when you travel, there is a handover between cells.

The two other cellular LPWAN standards are eMTC (now generally called LTE-M) and EC-GSM-IoT. Together, these standards were often referred to as ‘Mobile IoT,’ although that term is confusing since older mobile cellular technologies already were and often still are used for M2M and IoT.

From a practical viewpoint the consequence of the arrival of the cellular LPWAN standards is that traditional – cellular – mobile operators offer NB-IoT (often on top of a non-cellular one, mainly LoRaWAN and/or alongside LTE-M) and that has some benefits/consequences which are inherent to cellular network technologies (e.g., QoS or Quality of Service) and to working with operator networks and their business ecosystems.

NB-IoT can be deployed ‘in-band’, utilizing resource blocks within a normal LTE carrier, or in the unused resource blocks within a LTE carrier’s guard-band, or ‘standalone’ for deployments in dedicated spectrum

So-called non-cellular LPWAN standards are available through various types of companies and players, depending on your region. In the case of one of these non-cellular standards, LoRa, you will find many mobile operators offer it as well for historical, practical, and business reasons, which would take us way too far for the scope of an article on NB-IoT. Other non-cellular options on top of LoRa and LoRaWAN, include Sigfox. LoRa and Sigfox account for the majority of non-cellular LPWAN connections (and until at least 2023, and probably later, of LPWAN connections overall).

Just like other cellular standards, NB-IoT uses licensed spectrum (non-cellular LPWA network technologies use unlicensed spectrum). NB-IoT uses a subset of LTE (Long-Term Evolution, let’s say a standard for 4G wireless broadband, although that’s a simplification) and can be deployed in three different ways.

In case you are familiar with one or more of the non-cellular LPWAN options such as LoRa(WAN), you can see NB-IoT as the mobile industry’s most immediate answer to these offerings.