Narrowband IoT vs 2G: The right GPS Tracker Standard for your E-Bike

Narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT) is a new standard that was developed for the transmission of small data packages (e.g. GPS coordinates). The technology is characterised by a strong ability to penetrate the built environment and a long battery life. It is actually the perfect solution, for example, for tracking stolen bicycles – at least at first glance. Let us explain why Narrowband IoT is not yet suitable for tracking bicycles and e-bikes (with the emphasis on " YET"). What is the better alternative? What should you consider when buying bicycle and e-bike GPS trackers or developing your own GPS tracker or Narrowband IoT project? We inform you how to secure your bike the right way.

GPS-Tracking für E-Bikes

A simple explanation of the Internet of Things (IoT)

The acronym IoT stands for “Internet of Things”. It refers to the integration of physical objects, e.g. machines, vehicles, measuring devices, into the internet. Simply explained, it is the connection of the physical world with the virtual world.
A simple example: A person does not have to be physically present to read the electricity meter in your home. If the electricity meter is connected to the internet, the amount of electricity used is automatically transferred to the customer account.

One example of the Internet of Things is when you are informed that your bicycle has been moved without authorisation via an alarm on your smartphone.

For us, an even more interesting use case is the connection of your e-bike (= the “thing”) to the internet. If the e-bike and the internet are connected, you will be informed via an alarm on your smartphone as soon as an unauthorised person steals your bike. If you are unable to prevent the theft despite the alarm, you can track the location of your bike in real time and send the live location to the police, via a digital theft report.

GPS-Tracking ist ein Beispiel für das Internet of things
The tracking of vehicles via GPS is a practical example of the Internet of things (IoT)

What we understand by Narrowband IoT

Narrowband is the common term for a low data transmission speed. The opposite of narrowband is broadband, which refers to a high data transmission speed. The term broadband comes from the world of electrical engineering and refers to the frequency range used for digital communication. We know broadband from advertising, for example, when it comes to the internet (transmission) speed. This must be very high, e.g. for the transmission of videos on internet portals.

In the Internet of Things area, often a very low data transmission speed is sufficient.

However, when physical things are integrated into the virtual world (= Internet of Things), a very low speed is usually sufficient for data transmission. If, for example, the location of a bicycle is transmitted every 10 seconds a very accurate representation of the route results. If the electricity meter transmits the specific amount of electricity consumed once a day, it is sufficiently up-to-date. Transmitting a GPS coordinate every 10 seconds or the electricity level every day is nothing compared to the immediate transmission of a video, where millions of pixels and audio tracks are transmitted.

The term “Narrowband-IoT” combines a technology that integrates physical objects into the internet at a low data transmission speed.

This is why Narrowband IoT is not YET suitable for tracking bicycles or e-bikes

Narrowband IoT is based on the LTE standard of the smartphone. Advantage: An already existing mobile communication infrastructure is used as the basis. However, in order to exploit the existing infrastructure and make it suitable for Narrowband IoT, it must first be upgraded. The upgrade takes time and is being pushed faster in urban areas than in rural areas and in certain countries (e.g. Germany) it is being developed faster than in others.
In 2020, this is still the biggest disadvantage when it comes to the tracking of bicycles via Narrowband IoT: in the Frankfurt area, for example, where the mobile network has already been expanded to the Narrowband-IoT standard, the bicycle can be tracked well using a Narrowband IoT tracker. However, if the bicycle is stolen and taken to a rural area or abroad, via the motorway, the live location of the bicycle or e-bike will no longer be transmitted.

With Narrowband IoT, it is only possible to successfully track your bicycle or e-bike in places where the mobile network has already been upgraded to the Narrowband-IoT standard.

If you live in a city with a developed Narrowband IoT infrastructure, you have a good chance of actively preventing theft, due to the movement alarm (bike is moved, tracker transmits an alarm to the owner’s smartphone). If you are unable to prevent the theft, the chances of ever getting your bike back decrease with every metre the thief moves away from the city.
But if you rely on the right technology, we know from experience: Even after a theft, e-bikes can find their way back to their owner. At the beginning of this year 2020, a transporter with 56 stolen e-bikes was stopped successfully by the police 240 kilometres from the crime scene, on its way out of the country. Why? The e-bikes were fitted with PowUnity GPS trackers based on the 2G standard, rather than Narrowband IoT.

A comparison of transmission technologies

A comparison of technologies
* 2G is currently (as of June 2020) best suited for vehicle tracking because it already has huge network coverage, unlike narrowband IoT.

Bicycle and e-bike tracking: 2G as the most optimal technology

Mobile communication standards are subdivided into generations. 2G, 3G, 4G therefore stand for mobile communication standards of the second, third and fourth generation. GPRS and LTE are the designations for data transmission within these generations. GPRS is the designation for data transmission within the 2G standard and LTE stands for data transmission within the 4G standard. Simply explained: 2G and GPRS go together, 4G and LTE go together.
The 2G standard has existed since the 1990s. This network has been appropriately developed with dense and complete coverage. The main reason for the expansion to 3G and 4G is the higher data transmission (bandwidth). The 2G network was sufficient in the 1990s, as nobody downloaded videos etc. on their mobile phones. With the introduction of the smartphone, the network was inevitably expanded to 4G.

The 2G standard has the widest network coverage and is currently the best solution for the tracking of bicycles and e-bikes.

For tracking a bicycle or e-bike, however, this high bandwidth is not actually necessary. Data transmission rates of the 2G standard are absolutely sufficient. Since the 2G network has existed since the 1990s, the network coverage is also correspondingly dense. It is thus possible that you no longer have 4G network reception in the country, but you will still have 2G network coverage. Therefore, the 2G standard is currently the best solution for tracking bicycles and e-bikes, and thus also for the digital theft protection of bicycles and e-bikes.

Narrowband-IoT vs 2G: The advantages and disadvantages at a glance

One advantage of Narrowband IoT over 2G is that it has better building penetration and requires slightly less energy. For example, if machine data is transmitted in an urban area, Narrowband IoT is already an optimal alternative now. For a machine that is standing in the basement of an urban industrial building with thick reinforced concrete walls. The connection is first of all established, and as the machines do not move geographically they can thus transmit data, such as machine temperature or filling levels, constantly.
However, when it comes to data transmission in the field of mobility (trucks, cars, motorbikes, e-bikes, bicycles), the currently biggest disadvantage of the Narrowband IoT technology faces the biggest advantage of 2G: the network coverage that is still not sufficient. High levels of building penetration and lower energy consumption are of no use to the bicycle or e-bike owner if the stolen goods are lost in a dead spot in a rural area. Furthermore, data such as daily routes cannot be recorded if I am cycling off-road or in the countryside.

For PowUnity, the switch to NB-IoT is only an option once the infrastructure has been developed sufficiently.

In addition to live tracking and movement alerts, the PowUnity app also offers a route diary. In the route diary your daily routes covered are recorded, including the corresponding statistics such as speed, distance, average, etc.

There is no question that PowUnity will also start using Narrowband IoT, but only when the necessary infrastructure for the e-bike GPS tracker is guaranteed. Not one month sooner or later. So that we can give our customers the same theft protection guarantee as we do with 2G technology today.

How the GPS tracker works – a simple explanation

GPS stands for Global Positioning System. A transmitter and a receiver are needed to determine the position of an object. The transmitter used is a satellite system located in space. The receiver is a GPS tracker located on earth.

2G or Narrowband-IoT are used for the communication between the GPS tracker and the owner.

GPS satellites continuously broadcast their position via radio signals. The GPS tracker on earth receives these radio signals and converts them into its own position data. If the GPS tracker is located on a bicycle or e-bike, for example, the position data that is determined should be further transmitted to the owner’s smartphone, so that he or she can see the location of the bike in real time.
The 2G or Narrowband IoT standard is used to transmit the position data of the GPS tracker to the smartphone. 2G or Narrowband IoT are used for the communication between the GPS tracker and the owner. On the other hand, the exact position of the GPS tracker is determined via satellites (Global Positioning System).

How GPS tracking works

Infografik: Wie funktioniert GPS-Tracking
You can query the position of vehicles and other objects on your smartphone via a GPS tracker.

Good to know: The GPS tracker does not communicate directly with the owner’s smartphone; rather, it sends the data to an intermediary server. This server forwards the data to the smartphone. The advantage of this is that, on the one hand, data is stored in an intermediate memory, and is therefore not lost if the owner switches off the smartphone. Furthermore, the location data of the GPS tracker can be accessed simultaneously via several end devices (1. Smartphone, 2. Tablet, 3. Laptop, etc.).

Caution: A GPS tracker that does determine the position via the satellite should not be referred to as a GPS tracker. However, resourceful marketing people like to use the term GPS tracker also for non-satellite-based systems, thereby misleading their customers. One example of this is the term “Crowd GPS”.

Sigfox and LoRa: No alternatives to Narrowband-IoT and 2G

In addition to Narrowband IoT and 2G, we often hear the terms LoRa and Sigfox – these are also two transmission standards that are being developed for the transmission of small amounts of data, which focus on the expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT). The biggest difference between NB-IoT and 2G, compared to Sigfox and LoRa is that Narrowband IoT and 2G are based on the same infrastructure within which also our smartphones communicate, i.e. they share the so-called licensed spectrum with established network providers. This infrastructure is being expanded continuously and it currently covers many fields of application for data transmission worldwide.
The Sigfox and LoRa networks, on the other hand, first need to be built from scratch. These providers use their own so-called unlicensed frequency spectrum, developed in-house. This infrastructure is specially developed for specific use cases and is very well-engineered in these areas. Compared to NB-IoT and 2G, the transmission costs are also lower, and the energy efficiency is higher, as there are no costs for network operators, and they use their own frequency ranges.

Since the Sigfox and LoRa networks have to be built from scratch, they will always lag behind in terms of network expansion.

However, the poor network coverage of LoRa and Sigfox is a distinct deficit. It would not be sufficient for optimal digital e-bike theft protection, and this is not going to change in the future, unlike 2G vs. Narrowband IoT. Technologies that are based on the licensed frequency spectrum and existing mobile communication standards will always have a head start in network expansion.

Summary: The best GPS tracker for your bicycle

A 2G GPS tracker is currently, and for the time being, the best technology available to protect your e-bike against theft. This is because the technology is based on a stable, comprehensive network. Within the next five to ten years, 2G will be replaced by Narrowband IoT GPS trackers. They are more energy efficient and their high level of building penetration is impressive. However, the status of the NB-IoT network in 2020 is not sufficiently developed to reliably locate objects that move across borders.

The BikeTrax GPS Tracker uses 2G technology to protect your e-bikes, and is currently the most suited for this purpose.

LoRa and Sigfox are based on unlicensed frequency spectra and will never be able to achieve anywhere near the high network coverage that 2G already has now, and that Narrowband-IoT will have one day. For this reason, LoRa and Sigfox are less suitable for digital theft protection of bicycles and e-bikes, and will continue to be suitable only to a limited extent.
BikeTrax by PowUnity is a GPS tracker based on 2G technology. Tens of thousands of e-bike owners are already using BikeTrax with great success. Thefts are prevented on a weekly basis and gangs of thieves are picked up thanks to BikeTrax.
As long as PowUnity doesn’t offer a Narrowband IoT e-bike GPS tracker, you can rest assured that NB-IoT is not a suitable standard for e-bike theft protection.

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