NB-IoT, Sigfox, LoRaWAN: A Trio with Many Capabilities

17.05.2021 by Daniel Kunz
A measuring point for monitoring the groundwater level and water quality of a flooded gravel pit.

Various wireless technologies with different capabilities are now available for IoT applications. Which is the best solution for your IoT project? That’s a tricky enterprise decision to make.

Drinking water is one of the most intensively tested commodities in Germany. On that point the Federal Environment Agency and municipal utilities are fully agreed. With around 60 percent of the country’s drinking water extracted from groundwater, it too must be continuously monitored. That is a state responsibility, in North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, of the State Agency for Nature, Environment and Consumer Protection. Together with water utilities and other companies the state agencies operate thousands of measuring points all over the country, monitoring not only the water quality, including thresholds for salt, dissolved solids, or toxins like nitrates and pesticides, but also for water level and pressure when the groundwater level is lowered for civil engineering, sewage and pipeline construction work.

IoT Cuts Costs and Reduces Response Times

Once all the sensors, water level gauge cables und measuring probes are connected via the wireless network and the cloud, forming a part of the Internet of Things (IoT), measurements can be read and evaluated remotely. That makes regular on-site checks unnecessary and real-time alerts possible when measurements fall short of or exceed critical levels. The technician in charge is then notified automatically on his PC or mobile device and can undertake countermeasures.

Measuring Water Level: A Practical Example from the Netherlands

Continuous measurement of the level and quality of groundwater is important for protecting construction sites, industries, people and the water we drink. Regular inspection is often undertaken manually by operatives who read the devices on-site. The measurement experts of a Dutch company, Munisense, offer remote water management in real time with wireless water level loggers and quality measurement devices. Wireless data transmission is provided by T-Mobile Netherlands, which connects the devices via NarrowBand IoT with Munisense’s online portal. The NB-IoT communication protocol delivers good building penetration to ensure reliable transmission from groundwater measuring points that are otherwise hard to access by a cellular system. And NB-IoT modules are so energy-saving that they run for months or even years without maintenance on standard commercial batteries.

IoT Applications Have Special Requirements

If IoT data from measuring points or, in other industries, gas meters, pallets, garbage cans, containers and wind turbines is to be transmitted by radio, the next question is which wireless technology is the best for this use case. Simply incorporating an LTE module with a SIM card is seldom the solution. IoT terminal devices such as sensors or trackers have requirement specifications that differ totally from those of smartphones or laptops. They have neither a battery nor a power cord, so they rely on battery power if installed far away from a power source of any kind. So energy efficiency is an important prerequisite to ensure that the devices run for as long as possible without a battery replacement. Wireless modules suitable for mass rollout in factories, smart cities or agriculture must also be inexpensive. In addition they must have a high range and good building penetration because they are often in environments with poor reception such as cellars or basements.

Wireless modules that use broadband standards from 2G to LTE consume too much energy, while other widespread standards, from NFC via Bluetooth and WLAN to RFID, lack range or coverage. That is why, a few years ago, LPWA (Low Power Wide Area) technologies entered the data transmission market for IoT devices.

Difficult Quest for the Right Technology

As the acronym indicates, LPWA low energy consumption and wide range standards fulfill the requirements of many IoT applications. But which solutions are available, what distinguishes them from one another and what should a company go for? In view of these questions, finding the right technology for an IoT project is a challenge. Three of the most widespread standards are LoRaWAN, Sigfox and NarrowBand IoT. Each can be used wherever relatively small data packets such as fill level, position or carbon dioxide count are to be relayed to the cloud at regular intervals – hourly, daily or weekly – and wherever wireless must bridge long distances or penetrate cellar walls and sewage pipes. The standards are also designed for energy efficiency to enable batteries to power modules for months or years without maintenance.

Sigfox, LoRaWAN, NB-IoT: A Direct Comparison

There are differences, however. LoRaWAN, Sigfox and NB-IoT differ in distribution and availability, standardization and security, efficiency, effectiveness and costs. Publications to date on standard performance rely mainly on theoretical specifications arising from the standardization process or on laboratory measurement values. That is why, in 2020, Deutsche Telekom subjected the three technologies to a measurement comparison under real-world conditions. NB-IoT, Sigfox and LoRaWAN were checked for the following criteria:

  • Quality of Transmission
    How likely are connection setup and data transmission to succeed?
    How much data can be transmitted in a given time?
    How fast can data be sent?
    How far can the signal reach under certain preconditions?
  • Coverage
    What about availability and roaming?
  • Energy Efficiency
    How high is the power consumption in certain conditions?
  • Security
    How are security mechanisms integrated and where are the vulnerabilities?
  • Costs
    How high are the user fees and infrastructure and maintenance costs?
  • Sustainability
    Are the technologies usable in the long term?
Bar chart with data rates of Sigfox, LoRaWAN and NB-IoT in comparison

The fact check’s conclusion is that Sigfox shows clear weaknesses, especially in security, coverage, range and energy efficiency. A publicly operated LoRaWAN network is not convincing in terms of total cost, network coverage and quality of transmission either.

If the objective is ...

  • ... to connect a larger number of devices securely at a corporate location with inadequate cellular coverage
  • without data leaving the corporate campus,
  • and if the quantity of data and number of messages keep within reasonable limits,

then LoRaWAN may be your local IoT network of choice.

In all other cases, such as if ...

  • ... there is good countrywide network coverage
  • and security, data throughput, range and quality of transmission must be high
  • and energy consumption and costs must be low,

then NarrowBand IoT is the wireless protocol of choice for reliable IoT device connectivity – at present and, above all, in the future.


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Daniel Kunz
Daniel Kunz

Expert Digital Marketing

Digitization and the Internet of Things are among the favourite topics of Daniel Kunz. He has been with Deutsche Telekom since 2017 and regularly writes about technology trends and many exciting topics, especially for the retail trade and the logistics industry.