Smart Factory, Smart City, Smart Everything: IoT-enabled devices are becoming normal. But which standard wireless technology guarantees secure data transmission over long distances using little energy? A comparison of NB-IoT and LoRaWAN.
The growing number of connected IoT devices is not only optimizing the production of goods or how we live together in cities; it also poses an increasing threat to our digital security. Or so felt 76 percent of German firms that Bitkom and the Fraunhofer Institute polled for their 2020 Economic Protection Study.
As the number of potential vulnerabilities increases with the level of networking, it is all the more important for companies to keep an eye on their IoT security. Along with the quest for qualified personnel and the endeavor to make all employees more keenly aware of the need for IT security, many small and midrange businesses rely, in dealing with IoT applications, on security by design. That includes which transmission technology provides the necessary security in which context.
NB-IoT or LoRaWAN?
In the early days of the Internet of Things machine data was transmitted mainly by 2G or GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication). Special networks for IoT applications, so-called Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) networks, were developed to improve building penetration, reduce data costs and energy consumption during transmission, and increase the short battery lifespan. They guarantee robust, energy-saving transmission of smaller amounts of data at low hardware costs. Two of them are especially popular: NarrowBand IoT (NB-IoT) and Long Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN). Which is better in respect of security?
NB-IoT: Secure Across LTE Frequencies and VPN
Let us first consider the fundamental differences between the two standards and their implications for corporate cybersecurity. NB-IoT (NarrowBand IoT) has been around since 2016 and is a technology developed especially for the Internet of Things and, initially, mainly in connection with Industry 4.0. It uses the licensed LTE frequency range, is based on the 3GPP specifications and incorporates LTE security functions developed and tested by the partners in the 3rd Generation Partnership Project. They include reciprocal authentication of terminal device and network, cryptographic algorithms such as AES, and a high level of security in creating and exchanging encryptions. The remaining LTE functions, not being needed, are not provided, which makes wireless modules inexpensive and transmission energy-saving.
NB-IoT transmits via the air interface LTE Cat-NB1, which is encrypted at the user and/or control level. Different encryption and integrity procedures are used and end-to-end encryption is not defined as standard, but can and should be implemented in the DTLS protocol or, in the near future, in the BEST or OSCORE protocol too. Telekom also increases the level of security by means of measures like the use of security tunnels (IP VPNs).
LoRaWAN: Free Frequencies, but Prone to Failure
LoRaWAN, developed since 2015 by the Lora Alliance, uses in contrast – like the French competitor Sigfox – the unlicensed frequency spectrum, which in Germany is available free of charge. Users that operate their own gateways need neither SIM cards nor contracts with cellphone network providers and do not incur roaming charges. The price for these advantages is that the network is not entirely immune to faults and malfunctions. An adequate remedy is the Chirp Spread Spectrum (CSS), the robust Lora modulation method used by LoRaWAN, which switches frequency continuously, making it almost impossible for hackers to intercept entire messages.
LoRaWAN consists of three main components: nodes such as a sensor and endpoints, gateways, and the network server. All data sent by sensors reaches all gateways in the vicinity before it is passed on to the cloud-based network server. The network server filters packets for duplicates, installs security updates and, for one, sends the packets to the application server, which performs the required action. For another, it sends confirmations back to the gateways. It does so relatively slowly. As a consequence, despite the low transmission power a high range can be achieved by a low number of gateways. The combination of network and application layer ensures a good level of security.
Classical Vulnerabilities: The Terminal Devices
NB-IoT devices have a SIM card, a secure element thst LoRaWAN devices lack as a standard feature. The SIM card is an advantage because it makes extraction of the main key and other cryptographic data much more difficult. Terminal devices without a secure element cost less, so many companies opt for LoRaWAN. Deutsche Telekom’s integrated nuSIM is a low-cost solution that dispenses with the physical SIM card, but not with the security of the LTE standard.
A possible vulnerability of NB-IoT is the fact that many terminal devices have multimode wireless modules and can connect with a 2G network if no NB-IoT network is available. Hackers could exploit that. Unlike the LTE network, fake base stations can be created on GSM and UMTS, making it easier to penetrate the network even without reciprocal authentication. So it is always advisable to implement additional end-to-end encryption, especially when roaming on third-party networks.
Terminal devices are vulnerable for LoRaWAN users too because they lack a secure element such as a SIM card or a chip. As most IoT devices are only occasionally connected to the network and are otherwise in energy-saving mode, hackers can often manipulate them unnoticed. Another LoRaWAN vulnerability is that the main key never changes and, if misappropriated, can be used for the entire network.
Conclusion: LoRaWAN for Simpler, NB-IoT for More Complex or Critical Applications
LoRaWAN, like its LPWA fellow combatant Sigfox, is suitable for use with very simple devices intended to send data with a minimal energy input from time to time over long distances and from remote and difficult-to-access locations. They include, for example, smart applications used in agriculture, especially in areas without LTE, let alone 5G coverage. Their users may have to find the network themselves, but companies can in this way serve rural production locations such as farms and fields.
NB-IoT has good building penetration, is generally resistant to interference and its reciprocal authentication and secure key generation and exchange contribute to a very high level of cybersecurity. NB-IoT is suitable for applications with a low bandwidth that require reliable transmission, such as Smart Metering, Smart City applications, filling level sensors or simple trackers. Even when bidirectional M2M communication is required NB-IoT is the better choice.
In the final analysis both technologies provide an acceptable level of security. Which standard a company should go for will depend on factors such as objectives, budget or geographical location. In principle NB-IoT is superior to LoRaWAN when it comes to storing critical data, but LoRa has a good modulation that absolutely justifies its use in rural areas.
We would be delighted to offer you the assistance of our Telekom experts with choosing the LPWA technology that is most suitable for you.
Would you like to know in greater detail what lies behind the two LPWA standards? Then let us recommend to you our free whitepaper on the subject of “Comparison and Analysis of the Security Aspects of LoRaWAN and NB-IoT.”
Ümit has been working at T-Systems since 2015 and knows a great deal about many facets of the Internet of Things. He is particularly interested in topics related to the digitalization of the business world. For the blog, he reports on new developments and trends in the IoT world that offer real added value for customers.
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