NB-IoT Explained: What Is It, and How Does It Work?

November 28, 2022

Internet of Things (IoT) solutions expand and improve daily business operations worldwide. Innovations in cellular narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) network technology broaden potential IoT applications by:

  • Reducing device energy consumption through smarter battery use
  • Extending IoT application reach
  • Increasing return on investment (ROI)
  • Reducing costs

The impact of NB-IoT is revolutionary for power efficiency and smart management. Let’s explore NB-IoT radio technology, how it works and what applications it will enable.

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What Is Narrowband IoT?

NB-IoT logo.

NB-IoT is a cellular low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) technology standard. It’s deployed over resource blocks (i.e., a unit of network resources) on existing cellular LTE networks or dedicated ones. NB-IoT can be the best solution for connecting people and businesses to devices that transact small data amounts. These devices expend low amounts of energy since they can spend time in sleep mode.

Its efficiencies in indoor coverage, energy expenditure and maintenance contribute to an increase in IoT-enabled devices. Experts estimate that there will be over 29 billion IoT devices by 2030.

How Does NB-IoT Work?

NB-IoT was initially specified in 3GPP’s Release (Rel) 13. 3GPP introduced it strictly as a connectivity solution for non-moving devices. NB-IoT devices are designed to operate on a very narrow 180 kHz spectrum to lower hardware costs.

NB-IoT can be deployed on the network in three different modes:

  • Stand-alone: Utilizes stand-alone carrier in dedicated spectrum
  • In-band: Utilizes resource blocks within a normal LTE carrier
  • Guard band: Utilizes the unused resource blocks within an LTE carrier’s guard band 

3GPP Rel 14 gave NB-IoT enhanced mobility, albeit not to the extent that other cellular technologies are mobile. Rel 14 also improved data rate performance:

  • Rel 13 (NB1): Up to 21 kbps downlink, 62.5 kbps uplink
  • Rel 14 (NB2): Up to 120 kbps downlink, 160 kbps uplink

What Are the Benefits of NB-IoT, and Why Is It Used?

NB-IoT offers expanded coverage and extended battery life. It's excellent for smart city use cases, such as smart streetlights and parking meters.

Expanded Coverage Range

As new wireless technologies emerge, where does NB-IoT fit? Short-range radio solutions like Bluetooth® wireless technology are useful but have too high a bandwidth. They also don’t reach far enough for applications requiring a wide geographic span. LTE-M technology has more expansive coverage capabilities but is more costly.

NB-IoT is a low-bitrate technology that is integral to 4G and 5G technology. It suits applications that need wide-area coverage. NB-IoT’s radio and data protocols enable coverage to reach deep indoors and underground areas.

Extended Battery Life

With less power consumption comes greater device possibilities. The simpler a radio waveform, the less power it will consume. The simplicity of NB-IoT’s waveform technology and smart power-saving modes combine to consume less power.

NB-IoT modems deliver battery life lasting more than 10 years when all power-saving guidance is followed. As a result, businesses will replace batteries less frequently, reducing maintenance and operational costs.

Reliable Technology at a Lower Cost

Connect more devices for less and with greater placement flexibility. The technology uses licensed spectrum, which international standards regulate.

NB-IoT networks are available in most countries worldwide. The NB-IoT module costs less and is simpler to integrate into the sensor or device. The cellular infrastructure supporting it can connect many devices and save security and maintenance costs.

7 Ways NB-IoT Will Impact Businesses

NB-IoT will revolutionize cities and businesses that rely on access to data in hard-to-reach locations, including:  

  • Warehouses
  • Underground garages
  • Utility closets
  • Rural environments

When you obtain connectivity from an expert IoT provider, you can manage the deployment with more accessible control.

Furthermore, its cost-efficiency makes it feasible for existing IoT applications that haven’t gained widespread acceptance because of previously prohibitive costs.

These applications include:

From farming to health care to industrial utilities, expect NB-IoT to become integral to the 5G application framework. NB-IoT and LTE-M are expected to coexist in 5G networks for many years. They will be the only technologies to support cellular LPWA use cases.

NB-IoT vs. LTE-M: What’s the Difference?

LTE-M is a full-fledged cellular standard. It supports full mobility and even elementary voice (i.e., Voice over LTE), neither of which are available in NB-IoT. LTE-M is a low-power standard. However, it consumes more power because it delivers higher data rates (up to 1 Mbps for Cat M1) and implements a fuller cellular protocol.

Still, LTE-M can be put in Power Saving Mode (PSM) and extended Discontinuous Reception (eDRX) and deliver multiyear solutions for battery-powered IoT devices. Depending on the coverage scenario, NB-IoT applications must tolerate latency that can reach seconds, and LTE-M has a lower latency in the tens of milliseconds.

Finding the Right NB-IoT Solution

Are you looking to design an IoT solution that incorporates NB-IoT technology? We have helped hundreds of businesses with NB-IoT modules and solutions as they prepare for changes in wireless connectivity.

Contact us for expert device design support and request a developer kit.

Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published on 14 February 2018 and has since been updated.