Contact Us

LPWAN - Licensed vs. Unlicensed

6 minute read

Traditional M2M solutions have remained on 2G and 3G technologies, primarily due to the fact that high cost LTE options used to be the only LTE options.  Similarly, several newer IoT use cases have been slower to adopt due to this same issue.  Because of this cost barrier, many unlicensed spectrum options (SigFox, LoRa and RPMA) have entered the market dominating market share of new IoT solutions requiring low power, longer range and long battery life–also know as LPWAN. However, with the introduction of new licensed spectrum LTE technologies (LTE-M and NB-IoT) that have eliminated the cost barrier, the trend in the market is shifting.

In selecting which technology is the best fit for your IoT solution, there are several factors that should be considered:

Coverage; Bandwidth; Battery Life; Throughput; 2-way Data capabilities; Security; Scalability; Mobility support; Location support; Module Cost.

The table below gives a brief comparison of the licensed and unlicensed spectrum technology option and how they stack up in each of these areas.

  Licensed Spectrum Unlicensed Spectrum
Coverage 160 dB 164 dB 149 dB 157 dB 177 dB
Bandwidth 1 MHz 180 KHz 100 Hz 125 KHz MHz
Battery Life 10+ years 10+ years 10+ years 10+ years 10+ years
Throughput 1 Mbps 250 Kbps 100 bps 290bps-50Kbps 624 Kbps
2 Way Data TX Yes Yes No Depends Yes
Security 3GPP (128-256 bit) 3GPP (128-256 bit) 16 bit 32 bit AES 128 bit
Scalability High High Low Medium High
Mobility Support Connected & Idle mode Idle mode No Yes Yes
LBS Support Requires GPS Requires GPS No Yes Requires GPS
Module Cost $10 $5 $2 $12 $12


LTE-M is likely the strongest candidate for migrating legacy 2G and 3G M2M devices as well as for new applications that require higher bandwidth but with lower power consumption to extend battery life.  NB-IoT is a lower cost alternative to LTE-M and while it supports lower bandwidth, it does not support voice and has slower cell-tower handoff which will make it unsuitable for solutions requiring high mobility support.  These licensed spectrum alternatives are likely to dominate IoT solutions between now and 2023 due to MNO adoption making their coverage superior.  However, there is still no clear victor for many use cases and each technology has a potential fit that will boil down to the specific requirements of your IoT solution.

Companies seeking to adopt IoT solutions, or those with legacy 2G or 3G IoT solutions, should first make sure that they understand what network options are available in the desired coverage area, and how long those options will be supported. The superior choice will be dependent on each business’s unique circumstances, which can include specific IoT applications, the length of product lifecycles, or the level of difficultly in accessing devices.


Want to learn more about your options when migrating away from 2G and 3G? Download our Definitive Guide to Network Shutdowns to find out what new network is your best option.

New call-to-action

U3GM Blog Post Comments


Stay up to date on all things IoT by signing up for email notifications.