Complementary, Not Competitive: Bringing Cat. M and NB-IoT Together for Optimum Cellular LPWA Utility

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By Jamie Moss | 2Q 2018 | IN-5102

Category M (Cat. M) and Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) are complementary technologies and do not directly compete with one another. Cat. M and NB-IoT fulfill different roles and can be combined so that each helps the other to achieve optimal functional utility.

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Two Techs Are Better Than One


Cat. M and NB-IoT are stronger together. Each technology may be needed to properly enable the other. Cat M. can provide Firmware Over-The-Air updates (FOTA) for NB-IoT-based devices, while NB-IoT can act as an event-based trigger to turn on Cat. M. The former ensures business critical functionality. The latter ensures Cat. M is only active when necessary, improving battery consumption and the useful lifespan of a device. Carriers may, therefore, need to roll out both in order to effectively offer services based on either, regardless of the technology "camps" that carriers initially seemed to have divided themselves into.

Additionally, as the NB-IoT specification has been revised and matures, the functional differences between Cat. M and NB-IoT have become clearer. In addition to providing complementary and non-mutually exclusive features, device manufacturers have now decided that Cat. M is the best cellular Low-Power, Wide-Area (LPWA) technology for mobile endpoints and that NB-IoT is best used for stationary IoT devices, throughput requirements and power consumption notwithstanding. This also means that to correctly address use cases from each of these two fundamental application categories, carriers will need to offer both Cat. M and NB-IoT.

Revising Initial Decisions


 the start of 2018, 28 Cat. M and 74 NB-IoT network rollouts had been publicly announced, five of the former and 14 of the latter being live. Cat. M was strongly adopted in North America and Northeast Asia, and, with the exception of a group-wide commitment from Orange, was notably weak in Europe. Plans to adopt NB-IoT were strong worldwide, except for in the Americas, until the announcements from Verizon and Dish Networks in February 2018. Carrier decision making about which cellular LPWA technology to originally choose was informed by whichever was best supported by their infrastructure suppliers and certified module vendors. The technology favored by each network and semiconductor vendor was in turn the one that they had the greatest Intellectual Property (IP) stake in.

Few carriers originally committed to both Cat. M and NB-IoT, and of the 14 that did, all but six were in the Asia-Pacific region. But the risk of missing out on serving either the mobile or stationary IoT device markets, both of which harbor killer apps in the form of asset tracking and smart metering respectively, combined with the risk of less effectively serving either market, is just too great. In each case, carriers would potentially lose business to their competition; therefore, more (some more openly than others) are revising their opinions and their LPWA technology commitments. This will be important for network vendor revenues and will help to dispel the myth that the IoT is somehow a "battle" of technologies.

Primed and for the Benefit of All


The IoT is about making use of whatever best fits each use case. Few IoT connectivity technologies are in direct competition, most are complementary, even if multiple technologies may be able to fulfill the requirements of a given use case. This is why it is pertinent for service providers to have a toolbox of technologies at their disposal, to best serve all potential customers. Connectivity diversity enables the creation of service subscriptions that sit across air interfaces, tailored to the need for business- critical connectivity at large. These are plans that guarantee the performance of a task, not simply the utilitarian consumption of buckets of data. It is reasonable to expect all carriers with LPWA IoT aspirations to offer both Cat. M and NB-IoT in time.

Infrastructure vendors will also benefit financially from the complementary nature of Cat. M and NB-IoT. Where once it may have been expected that each carrier customer would choose one or the other, there will now be an opportunity to license both to all. This means greater revenues from e-Node B software upgrades. It also means that infrastructure vendors must partner with the carriers more closely than ever and offer pay-as-you-grow rollout options, wherein sites are upgraded as and when carriers have secured a business need to serve enterprises within a given geography. Despite its rich potential, LPWA-based IoT is presently nascent and careful cost control is critical to all participants in the value chain, not just to the downstream enterprises.

Certain carriers will of course want to use maximum coverage as a competitive differentiator from the start. And it is maximum coverage that has prompted module vendors to produce dual-function Cat. M and NB-IoT products. Some vendors have even bundled in 2G so that an LPWA IoT device can access the least expensive, least power-hungry cellular network wherever it is in the world. The incremental cost of adding NB-IoT to a Cat. M module is low at around 15%, so even the smallest module vendors are expected have dual-function modems in their 2018 product roadmap. This means that the LPWA IoT market is well primed for the concurrent use of both connectivity technologies in a single application, even though the enterprise demand for it is currently speculative.


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