3GPP IoT Technologies Explained

What is 3GPP?

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is a collaboration between groups of telecommunications standards associations, known as the Organizational Partners.

The initial scope of 3GPP was to make a globally applicable third-generation (3G) mobile phone system specification based on evolved Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) specifications within the scope of the International Mobile Telecommunications-2000 project of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The scope was later enlarged to include the development and maintenance of:

  • GSM and related “2G” and “2.5G” standards, including GPRS and EDGE
  • UMTS and related “3G” standards, including HSPA
  • LTE and related “4G” standards, including LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro
  • Next generation and related “5G” standards
  • An evolved IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) developed in an access independent manner

3GPP standardization encompasses Radio Access Network, Services and Systems Aspects, and Core Network and Terminals. The project was established in December 1998 and should not be confused with 3rd Generation Partnership Project 2 (3GPP2), which specifies standards for another 3G technology based on IS-95 (CDMA), commonly known as CDMA2000. The 3GPP support team (also known as the “Mobile Competence Centre”) is located at the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) headquarters in the Sophia Antipolis technology park in France.

The 3GPP has specified three flavors of LPWA technologies to run on licensed bands:

  • LTE-M or eMTC, an evolution of LTE technology with the first defined subcategory being “Category-M1” or Cat-M1
  • NB-IoT, a narrower adaptation of LTE technology designed to fit into 2G channels, with the first defined subcategory being “Category-NB1” or Cat-NB1
  • EC-GSM-IoT (usually shortened to EC-GSM), a 2G evolution of the GSM technology very well suited in countries with a strong existing 2G coverage

Attribute CAT-M1 CAT-NB1 EC-GSM
(LTE-M) (NB-IoT)
Voice Capability Yes No Yes
Mobility Full Partial Full
Data Rate 375 kbps 20-65 kbps 70 kbps
Latency Fast (~same as LTE) Medium Slow
  1. LTE-M (LTE-MTC, LTE Category M1)

    In the simplest terms, LTE-M is a stripped-down version of LTE. It uses the same spectrum and base stations, works everywhere that LTE works, and enables true TCP/IP data sessions. The major difference between LTE and LTE-M is power efficiency—LTE-M enables battery-powered devices to send and receive data online via a Verizon or AT&T connection. An iPhone battery lasts a day, but a cell modem-connected water meter battery could last 10 years—which is a profound change to the cellular Internet of Things.

    LTE-M has a slightly higher data rate than NB-IoT and EC-GSM-IoT (which we’ll discuss later in this article) but is able to transmit fairly large chunks of data. Potential applications include tracking objects, energy management, and utility metering; this technology could also be used in city infrastructure and wearable devices.

  2. NB-IoT (LTE Cat-NB1, LTE Cat-M2)

    Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) was added in 3GPP’s REL 13. Unlike LTE-M, NB-IoT is not related to LTE, but is based on a DSSS modulation similar to the old Neul version of Weightless-W. Plenty of large telcos—including Huawei, Ericsson, Qualcomm, and Vodafone—are actively involved in putting this standard together, but it is not currently deployed anywhere in the U.S.

    The fabrication of the chipsets in LTE-M and NB-IoT is nearly the same, so there’s not much that is fundamentally cheaper about using NB-IoT from an endpoint hardware perspective. The primary issue to consider with NB-IoT is deplorability. Telcos believe that NB-IoT will help them compete at the low end of the IoT market against technologies like Sigfox and LoRa—but unlike LTE-M, there’s no path to a simple software upgrade to support this standard. Proponents of the standard will have to spend billions of dollars to support the technology—and it remains to be seen whether they’ll do so. It is most attractive option in places where existing LTE networks don’t already exist, as the base station hardware for NB-IoT will likely be less expensive than LTE base stations.

  3. EC-GSM-IoT

    EC-GSM-IoT is similar to LTE-M in that it is designed to operate in existing networks (in this case, eGPRS 2G networks rather than LTE 4G networks). It is also designed to operate with existing base station hardware, to minimize the costs of upgrading eGPRS-only to support it. The details behind EC-GSM-IoT remain a little hazy, as it is not yet part of an official 3GPP release—but it is likely to feature eDRX, as well as some protocol-level enhancements (which may improve coverage by 10-20 dB). It isn’t yet clear there is market demand for this technology, and we don’t expect to see commercial EC-GSM deployments until 2019, if at all.

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