Beyond 3G

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Network evolution and impacts to IoT

By Paul Caples, Head of IoT Platforms at Spark

When it comes to going beyond 3G cellular technology, replacement options have increased significantly as 4G and 5G technologies have matured. With Spark’s upcoming 3G network switch-off, it’s important to understand the technologies on offer, so you can make the right decision for your business.

Your solution requirements will dictate the best selection of network services. This will be over LPWAN (low power wide area network) or eMBB (enhanced mobile broadband). So, what’s the difference between the two?

LPWAN’s main focus is to support IoT devices requiring low-power usage coupled with low-bandwidth throughput. It is mostly suited to replace today’s 3G use cases.

eMBB is focused on IoT devices requiring high-speed and high bandwidth communication. It provides functionality well beyond the existing capability of today’s 3G features.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll be focusing on LPWAN.

Which technology should I use to replace my 3G connections?

The following are the core LPWAN IoT technologies available when selecting a modern cellular IoT connectivity solution:

  • LTE-M/CAT M1 is optimised for IoT devices requiring moderate data rates and low latency. It’s suitable for applications such as voice and video communications, telemetry and fleet management. It provides data rates up to 1Mbps and supports both uplink and downlink communications, making it suitable for IoT devices that need to both send and receive data.
  • NB-IoT is optimised for IoT devices requiring low data rates and long battery life. It’s great for applications such as smart metering, environmental monitoring and asset tracking.
  • Cat1 for Business (Cat 1biz) is a specific application of Cat 1 technology designed for business and enterprise IoT solutions. It provides a low-cost solution for businesses needing to connect many IoT devices to the network, but not requiring high data rates for each individual device.

On the horizon, REDCAP (Reduced Capability or 5G NR Light) will offer a path forward within 5G for devices currently utilising LTE CAT1 or CAT4 type capabilities.

Determining which of the above options is suitable for you is dependent on the requirements of your IoT application. This includes data rates, latency, uplink/downlink capabilities and battery life.

Which technology should I use to replace my 3G connections?

When selecting technology for IoT deployments, businesses need to understand their projected lifespans so that they can plan their investments with confidence.

The Cellular IoT Module Market Uptake in January 2023 reported the proportion of global cellular standard adoption in 2022 as:

2G10 percent
3G2 percent
LTE22 percent
5G0.3 percent
LTE Cat.1  1.32 percent
LTE Cat.M    10.4 percent
NB-IoT24 percent

See the full market update

In 2027 it is anticipated there will be increased adoption of both LTE Cat.1: 38.3 percent and LTE-M: 16.4 percent although NB-IoT is projected to soften to 18.6 percent.

To future-proof your investments, it’s important to note NB-IoT and LTE-M are carried forward as part of the 5G standards. They can be considered as early release technologies within LTE which will persist into 5G’s lifespan. REDCAP is projected to feature as an evolution path for devices that today use LTE CAT1 or CAT4.

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