u-blox’ first module for narrow-band cellular IoT, low data rate comms

u-blox’ first module for narrow-band cellular IoT, low data rate comms

New Products |
By Graham Prophet

NB-IoT will provide a low-data-rate service as an extension of existing cellular (LTE) services. It promises very high levels of coverage and of penetration – reach of signal into difficult, ‘deep-indoors’ areas; and low power, with (depending on duty cycle) 10-year-plus battery life. It will also be structured to be ‘cost-optimised’ according to u-blox, and will have the benefits of being a broadly-based industry standard, in licensed bands, with quality-of-service guarantees.


The u-blox module has been designed for applications such as smart buildings and cities, utilities metering, white goods, asset tracking, and agricultural and environmental monitoring, it will operate for between 10 and 20 years from a single-cell primary battery. Its 16 x 26 mm LGA form factor, using u-blox nested architecture, facilitates simple upgrades from u-blox GSM, HSPA or CDMA modules and ensures future-proof, seamless mechanical scalability across technologies.

The SARA-N2 module provides secure, private communications over licensed spectrum with guaranteed quality of service. It supports peak downlink rates of up to 227 kbps and uplink rates of up to 21 kbps. Simultaneous support for three RF bands means that the same module may be used in most geographic regions.


The benefits of NB-IoT over other cellular radio technologies include lower device complexity, ultra-low power operation and support for up to 150,000 devices per single cellular cell. The technology offers a 20 dB link budget improvement over GPRS to give excellent performance under poor coverage conditions such as underground or inside buildings. This margin, u-blox says, can potentially be traded for additional battery life.


The company offers its comparison with with Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) services operating in unlicensed spectrum; “NB-IoT offers greater security and freedom from interference because it uses a licensed spectrum based network. Other advantages include lower latency than mesh networks, thanks to its point-to-point topology, the ability to run it adjacent to existing 2G and LTE networks – it needs just 200 kHz of bandwidth – and a higher transmit power limit, which improves reliability and range. It also allows for robust 2-way communication which means that features such as firmware upgrade over the air are achievable. Furthermore, global roaming is possible with NB-IoT, which is not the case with localized unlicensed spectrum based technologies.”


u-blox further comments that once NB-IoT is available, the major providers will support it with service offerings, included in which will be managed-services with the comms link bundled into a data-handling product. Some ‘tier-1’ companies may also support unlicensed-band services, and the two categories my prove to be (to some degree) complementary rather than competitive.


In the light of u-blox’ other product offerings, is a module with integral GPS/GNSS planned? No specific plans are disclosed, but the company hints that such a combined module may appear at later time. Also, the company notes – this module being compliant to 3GPP Release 13 – Release 14 will itself introduce location-awareness to the specification.


U-blox has had modules in preliminary real-world trials; those have used a ‘pre-finalisation’ version of the standard – two proposals have been converged to yield the full release, that u-blox will introduce as a software update. General-market samples of the SARA-N2 NB-IoT module are currently scheduled for Q4 2016, with full production planned for early 2017.





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