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Cat M1 Wireless: What is it, what’s it for, and why would you use it?

By ·Categories: Tech Explained·Published On: March 18th, 2021·5.4 min read·

Category M1, or Cat M1 wireless (sometimes also abbreviated LTE-M) is a low-power wide area network (LPWAN) cellular technology. Cat M1 was designed specifically for IoT projects, with an average upload speed between 200 kbps and 400 kbps. You read that correctly, KILOBITS Per Second. In the modern world of Gigabit internet speeds (equal to a million kilobits), that probably sounds virtually useless. But, in the world of Industrial IoT, the value of data is its quality over time, not necessarily its quantity or speed of transfer.

The keystone of the massively impactful leaps forward that are Industry 4.0, edge computing and the Industrial IoT, is cellular data. Before smartphones became the norm, accessing the internet for information or to get work done was relegated to your desktop workstation or Wi-Fi hotspots. Smartphones changed the game of internet access and opened the floodgates of information and productivity. This sea change in internet access paved the way for advancements in integrating cellular technology into the wider computing landscape, well beyond the phone in your pocket. Though it may seem counterintuitive given its slow speeds, Cat M1 wireless is an example of those advancements, and a powerful tool in the evolving connectivity of people, places and things.

Cellular Connections For IoT

As the market for IoT has grown, the adoption and use of cellularly connected devices have followed suit. It’s no surprise that always-on connectivity, independent of ethernet or Wi-Fi is attractive option for innovators looking to connect devices where internet access or Wi-Fi signal isn’t available, or who need a failsafe option in case of internet failure.

In our personal lives, we might not have the time or patience to wait for our web pages to load or videos to buffer. But, when it comes to a lightweight edge device processing and transmitting small packets of data, speed isn’t nearly as important as say, monthly or yearly operating costs. That’s where technologies like Cat M1 shine. The kind of information being shared between Industrial IoT devices, or from those devices to the cloud, is very different from the data most commonly sent by users via 4G or 5G. As such, standard data plans cost, and frankly do, more than what IoT architects need, so lower power, lower bandwidth and lower cost options were inevitable to help foster the growth of connected technology.

OnLogic Cat M1 Wireless Modem

The Growth of Cat M1 LTE

With reliability and cost efficiencies driving industrial IoT development, slower narrowband LTE options like Cat M1 are becoming a more attractive option for those involved in today’s Industry 4.0 projects. Cat M1 wireless is a cost-effective alternative to more expensive (albeit faster) wireless options because they use significantly less power and bandwidth than other cellular options, meaning modems can sometimes be powered by batteries or through the use of solar panels. This offers integrators the ability to place devices in remote locations where both reliable internet and power might not be available, and at a scalable cost that won’t hinder project growth.

In addition, the pricing model for Cat M1 cellular service is usually completely different from more mainstream 3, 4 or 5G coverage. Because data packets are smaller, and usually sent less infrequently, bandwidth use is minimal, meaning carriers who offer Cat M1 usually charge far less for service subscriptions. In the US, both Verizon and AT&T offer offer dedicated Cat M1 pricing and service models.

Does that mean Cat M1 is always your best low-cost alternative to more typical LTE service? Not exactly.

When Should You Consider Using Cat M1?

Cat M1 was designed primarily for efficiency. If your application requires transmitting large packets of data, a constant connection or fast data handling speeds, then Cat M1 might not be a viable solution. As an example, web browsing is often thought of as the most basic functionality of consumer connectivity, but using Cat M1 to browse your favorite websites would quickly try your patience. The type of network connectivity you need should always be driving by your desired functionality, not by the cost of the modem or service.

It’s also important to mention that Cat M1 isn’t as plug-and-play as other LTE solutions. There isn’t a bridge driver in Windows or Linux that supports Cat M1 modems, so applications must be written to talk directly to the modem, which requires direct AT commands. For those interested in integrating Cat M1 technologies into their applications, we have some sample code and documentation to help you get started, but you’ll likely also need to work with your cellular carrier and do some in-house development work to get information moving effectively.

Cat M1 vs NB-IoT

In addition to Cat M1, the other wireless communication technology that’s frequently associated with Industrial IoT projects is Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT). NB-IoT is another LPWAN technology that operates on an even narrower bandwidth (180 kHz) than Cat M1 (1.4 MHz). Because of its low bandwidth usage, data transfer speeds are even lower than those of Cat M1, allowing for uploads at only 26 kbps. One of the primary limitations of NB-IoT other than its limited data handling capabilities is that it can only be used for stationary applications because it can’t accommodate cellular tower handoffs. We’ll be covering more about the similarities and differences between Cat M1 and NB-IoT in a future post.

Cat M1 is a cellular technology that’s purposefully designed for connected devices, and one of many ways to connect your IoT project. Every connectivity need is unique, and Cat M1 isn’t suitable for every LTE-connected application. The data type, quantity and upload frequency you require will dictate which connection method and technology is best for your project. But for lightweight applications that are processing data packets and transmitting smaller bits of data periodically, Cat M1 could be a game changer. You’ll also want to carefully consider which method of connecting to the cellular network makes the most sense for you. We’ve previously covered the different options to connect devices with cellular technology, including our own line of customizable Extrovert Line of 4G LTE capable products, but it’s always best to connect with our team about using cellular data with our systems so we can help determine the best method of implementation.

To get started with Cat M1 or other LTE-enabled computers, click here to reach out to one of our System Experts for more information, or browse our full line of 4G capable systems.

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About the Author: Darek Fanton

Darek is the Communications Manager at OnLogic. His passion for both journalism and technology has led him from the newsrooms of local papers to the manufacturing floor of IBM. His background in news gathering has him always on the lookout for the latest in emerging tech and the best ways to share that information with readers. In addition to his affinity for words, Darek is a music lover, juggler and huge fan of terrible jokes.
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