Less than three months ago, u-blox announced that its SARA-R404M product had been certified, touting it as the world's smallest LTE Cat M1 module to date. Yesterday, they released news of its newest SARA module, the SARA-R410M-02B, which integrates Cat NB1 functionality but shares the same form factor—a mere 16 x 26 mm.
The SARA-R410M. All images courtesy of u-blox
Cat M1 vs Cat NB1
The big difference between the SARA-R404M and the SARA-R410-02B is the addition of NB1 functionality. LTE Cat M1 (also known as eMTC or "enhanced machine-type communication") is one of the LPWAN (low power wide area network) standards recognized by the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project), an organization that works with and coordinates standard developers in the telecom industry. Cat M1 is supported by all of the SARA-R4 modules so far.
The new module adds LTE Cat NB1. This is also known as NB-IoT for "narrow band Internet of Things", succinctly describing its most important application. It's designed to allow better connectivity in hard-to-reach places (like basements in buildings), as well as better battery life for devices. You can see the direct differences between Cat M1 and Cat NB1 in the table below. Notably, the bandwidth utilized is a major difference.
Comparison of LTE Cat M1 and Cat NB1. Table modified from Wikipedia
The module also offers "software‑based configurability" for all other bands in service.
As telecom standards evolve, some have fallen by the wayside, been replaced by more popular versions, or merged into new ones. (This is arguably what makes the 3GPP's mission so important.) This trend is likely to continue, so it's important for hardware manufacturers to be agile and release modules that can keep up with changing standards.
"3GPP IoT standardization on the way to 5G". Image courtesy of Rohde & Schwartz
eDRX for Better Device Battery Life
Also of note is the fact that the 02B version of the SARA-R410M module allows for eDRX (extended discontinuous reception). DRX is a mode which improves LTE by allowing devices to "sleep" between paging cycles, reducing energy consumption. Extended DRX allows for more customizable sleep settings, which can further improve battery life for connected devices. All of the SARA-R4 modules are also capable of utilizing power saving mode (which is designed to allow longer periods of power saving in designated "deep sleep" modes), but the 02B is the first to utilize eDRX.
u-blox claims that their eDRX can extend battery lifetime "up to 10 years"—quite the feat in an industry increasingly concerned with battery life in mobile devices.
"Firmware Over the Air" with uFOTA
The other difference between the SARA-R410-02B and its sister modules is that it comes with "global support". This term is in reference to one of the ways that ublox claims it's handling futureproofing their hardware: their propriety "uFOTA" system. The "FOTA" part stands for "Firmware Over the Air" (and the "u" is presumably their way of denoting that it's a u-blox system).
uFOTA allows them to conduct firmware updates via LWM2M or "lightweight M2M", a protocol for managing remote machine-to-machine communication. The goal is to allow users to continue using the same hardware over time.
u-blox is clearly investing a great deal in the SARA-R4 series, creating a family of modules to cater to current—and purportedly future—connectivity needs. It's also evidently looking to be instrumental in making cities smart. Among the listed applications for the series are utility metering, city lighting, industrial monitoring and control, and city street lighting.
- Temperature range: -40 to +85°C
- 3GPP Coverage Enhancement
- "Global use" hardware (non-regional)—unique to the 02B
- Interfaces: SPI, SDIO (Master/Slave)—unique to the 02B
- FDD bands:
- R410M-01B: 2, 4, 5, 12
- R410M-11B: 3, 5, 8, 28
- R410M-02B: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 28 (and 39 in M1-mode only)