What is Cellular IoT & Why It Matters for Your IoT Strategy

Cellular IoT connects physical devices to the internet through the use of cellular networks. Here’s everything you need to know for your business.
Kelli Harris
March 26, 2024
cell tower rising into a blue sky

Updated: March 2024

Cellular IoT links devices to the internet via cellular networks, ensuring connectivity even where Wi-Fi is unavailable. This broad coverage is perfect for IoT applications, especially when devices are on the move or in remote areas, for example, fleet trackers or smart farming sensors. With the rise of 5G, cellular IoT's importance will only grow, offering significant benefits to businesses of any size.

Click the links below to jump to what you need to know:

What is Cellular IoT?

How Does 5G Impact Cellular IoT?

What Are The Business Benefits of Cellular IoT?

What Industries Can Benefit From Cellular IoT?‍

How Does Cellular Compare With Other Connectivity Options?

How Does Cellular IoT Actually Work?

Which Mobile Networks Does Cellular IoT Use?

How Do I Find The Right-Fit Cellular IoT Provider?

Cellular IoT With Hologram

What is Cellular IoT?

Cellular IoT simply means connecting IoT devices using a cellular network rather than Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or a wired internet connection. In the past, many IoT businesses defaulted to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth for device connectivity because they can handle higher bandwidths and could be less expensive. But technology is changing, and cellular now offers more flexibility and coverage, making cellular IoT a more practical option.

How does 5G impact cellular IoT?

5G technology offers faster data throughput and support for numerous connected devices simultaneously. The rapid progress of 5G, alongside the increasing adoption of NB-IoT (Narrowband-IoT) and LTE-M technologies, is fueling the expansion of the massive IoT market – in which IoT has grown beyond homes or offices into areas like like manufacturing facilities, transportation, agriculture, and public infrastructure. Valued at $71.1 billion in 2021, the global market for massive IoT is forecasted to reach $521.2 billion by 2031.

(If your device has high-performance connectivity needs, take a look at our e-book on challenges (and solves!) of high-data IoT.)

What are the Business Benefits of Cellular IoT?

Cellular IoT holds many benefits for businesses considering an IoT deployment, particularly if the devices will be mobile or positioned in remote areas where Wi-Fi coverage may not be dependable. Let’s drill down on a few of those benefits.

Large Coverage Area

Because cellular IoT uses existing cell networks, devices are not tied to any particular location. Instead of limiting devices to the range of a Wi-Fi signal, Cellular IoT allows for device deployment even in remote locations, if there is cell coverage. As of September 2023, 254 operators are offering cellular LPWAN coverage, deploying NB-IoT or LTE-M networks in 80+ countries.

Built-In Authentication‍

Cellular IoT streamlines the authentication process, allowing users to sign in one time for their network rather than for every new device. If the device contains an eUICC-enabled SIM card, it can also be provisioned and authenticated remotely, allowing operators to swap out subscriber profiles over the air (OTA) using a method called Remote SIM Provisioning (RSP) . There are several business benefits to building with eUICC — for example, it enables a single SKU to work for multiple deployments around the world and gives you the ability to update SIM profiles after devices are deployed.


Cellular IoT removes a business’s dependence on a stable internet connection at the location of the device. This can define the success or failure of an IoT deployment, offering uninterrupted data transmission and operations, even in areas with limited or unreliable internet access.

While cellular networks can experience outages, new technologies (like Hologram’s Dual-Core SIMs) offer redundant connectivity that can keep you up and running, no matter what.

(Read more about the cause of outages and how to avoid them in Up & Running: our Guide to Eliminating Downtime.)

Connectivity Versatility

IoT devices vary in needs – some many require long-range communications while others may need high-data transmission. Cellular IoT offers many different technologies and configurations to support your team – NB-IoT is suitable for low-power, low-bandwidth applications, while 4G, 5G, or LTE-M is ideal for higher bandwidth IoT applications.

Better Security

Data sent via cellular network is encrypted, offering a much higher level of security than Wi-Fi. (While secured Wi-Fi access points can use encryption, it’s not as reliable, so there’s a higher chance data could be vulnerable to cyberattacks.) In cellular IoT networks, information is encrypted by default, meaning that businesses don’t have to take extra steps to protect data.‍


With the reliable connectivity of cellular IoT, devices are better able to collect and transmit data in real time, allowing businesses to make best use of analytics. For example, a company can track how and when its health monitor is used, tailoring future product updates and features to suit the needs of end users. In a smart factory, the flow of real-time cellular data from machines on the floor can power AI, predictive maintenance, reporting, and other functions.

Remote Management

Regular upkeep of physical devices is critical for IoT businesses. With cellular IoT and over-the-air updates provided by some eUICC SIMs, you can oversee and troubleshoot your connected devices from anywhere.

What Industries Can Benefit from Cellular IoT?‍

Many industries can benefit from incorporating cellular connectivity in their IoT deployments. Let’s take a closer look at some examples and what cellular technology brings to the table.‍


IoT offers key benefits to retail operations , including improved supply chain management and inventory tracking, and cellular IoT allows for great flexibility and customizability, such as:

  • Shoplifting Prevention: Cellular IoT asset trackers deter theft and enable item tracing post-theft. Solutions like CartTrac from Bemis Retail Solutions track in-store assets like shopping carts using GPS.
  • Cashless Payment Systems: IoT tracking devices and facial recognition software enable seamless checkout experiences, such as in Amazon Go cashless convenience stores.
  • Kiosks and Remote Point of Sale: Stable cellular signals allow vending machines, kiosks, and remote POS systems to operate efficiently in areas without wired internet.


Connected sensors and wearable IoT devices are improving patient care and helping facilities improve operations. Cellular connectivity is ideal for wearable devices because it offers the broad coverage needed to ensure patients stay connected when they’re on the go. Let’s take a look at a few interesting applications of cellular IoT in healthcare.‍

  • Smart Watches: To provide a flow of data in real-time, wristband devices that track health information need to stay connected to a network no matter where their wearers go. It’s particularly helpful for elderly users who need continual monitoring of heart rate and vitals – they can move more freely without worrying about being out of range of their Wi-Fi and alerts can be relayed in real time if an emergency situation arises. ‍
  • Patient Health Monitoring: Small cellular IoT devices can deliver highly accurate data to physicians and patients who have chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes. Having a particular device tailored to monitoring these symptoms allows for a higher degree of accuracy in potentially dangerous medical situations — and using cellular technology to connect these devices means they can operate more consistently. ‍‍‍


IoT plays a pivotal role in realizing Industry 4.0 . Connected sensors are placed on factory floor machinery and the data they yield can be used to predict maintenance needs, monitor workflows, drive productivity, and feed into larger company databases to run analytics reports. Choosing cellular connectivity as a primary or backup link to the cloud helps to minimize downtime and ensure stable connection even in more remote locations. Here are a few applications for cellular IoT in this field:‍

  • Manufacturing Robots: If the robot is a mobile unit, cellular IoT allows it to maintain a strong cell signal despite its location – more reliable than an internet connection. ‍
  • Predictive Maintenance: Knowing ahead of time when a factory robot is on the verge of breakdown is a huge advantage for manufacturing companies. IoT devices can provide advance notification, allowing operators to deal with emerging problems before they cause unexpected (and costly) downtimes.
  • Smart Pumping in Remote Locations: IoT sensors are often used to monitor the amount of fluid pumped in water processing, chemical manufacturing, and power plants to maximize efficiency and prevent malfunctions. While chemical factories and power plants in urban settings can use existing high-speed internet infrastructure, many of these types of facilities — nuclear power plants, for example — are intentionally placed in remote locations due to environmental and safety concerns. Cellular technology allows this type of monitoring to take place in any setting.‍


IoT logistics applications can help companies connect global supply chains and keep track of the movement of goods and vehicles in real time. Cellular technology is a huge component in the success of IoT solutions in this space. Let’s take a look at some relevant applications.‍

  • Delivery Tracking: Currently, most trucks and vehicles are tracked only when they check into or out of a delivery location. Cellular IoT allows for real-time tracking of delivery vehicles — from trains to trucks to airplanes — so that recipients can anticipate the delivery with greater accuracy. ‍
  • Monitoring Goods in Transit: Many products, materials, and chemicals are sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. Cellular IoT devices allow for these factors to be tracked in real-time to ensure the safe arrival of volatile materials.
  • Transportation Route Management: Advanced fleet management systems detect traffic and weather conditions along a vehicle’s route and recommend alternate routes as needed. Fleet-wide, this cuts down on fuel consumption and yields other benefits in saved time and increased safety. Cellular IoT makes these applications possible by providing stable connectivity and constant updates.‍
  • On Route Inventory Tracking: Cellular connectivity for IoT devices improves inventory tracking by sending real-time updates on the amount of inventory in any given vehicle. A cellular device installed inside a train’s freight car, for example, can monitor the amount of product remaining in the car during a series of deliveries, monitoring how much was unloaded at each stop, and when they will be in need of another shipment.

Agriculture or Agtech

By leveraging cellular connectivity, farmers and agribusinesses can harness real-time data, automate processes, and enhance productivity while minimizing environmental impact. Here are some compelling use cases of Cellular IoT in agriculture:

  • Smart irrigation systems: Cellular IoT enables smart irrigation systems that can monitor soil moisture levels in real time and adjust watering schedules accordingly, ensuring optimal water usage and reducing wastage. These systems can be controlled remotely, allowing for precise irrigation that conserves water and supports healthy crop growth.
  • Livestock monitoring: With Cellular IoT devices, farmers can track the health, location, and well-being of their livestock. These devices can monitor vital signs, detect illness early, and send alerts for irregular behavior, ensuring timely intervention and improving livestock management.
  • Crop monitoring and management: Sensors equipped with Cellular IoT connectivity can provide detailed insights into crop health, growth stages, and environmental conditions. For example, Fieldin, the world's largest smart farm operations company, uses cellular IoT to provide farmers real-time visibility to improve farming efficiency, as well as power connectivity for their autonomous farm vehicles.

How Does Cellular Compare With Other Connectivity Options?

Choosing the right IoT connectivity boils down to what your devices need. Cellular IoT offers a versatile solution with wide coverage, decent speeds, and manageable costs. Here’s a quick guide to some of the other connectivity types in the market today.

Cellular IoT vs. Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is great for fast connections over short distances. But if your devices need to roam or operate in remote spots, cellular IoT has the edge with its wide coverage.

Cellular IoT vs. Bluetooth

Bluetooth is perfect for close-range connections, like in your smart home gadgets. But for broader coverage and faster data transfer rates, especially for things like fleet management or industrial monitoring, cellular IoT wins out.

Cellular IoT vs. LPWAN (Low Power Wide Area Network)

LPWANs like LoRaWAN are energy-efficient and cost-effective, but they sacrifice speed. Cellular IoT strikes a balance, offering decent speeds and broader coverage while still being power-efficient.

Cellular IoT vs. Satellite

Satellite connections cover the globe, making them ideal for remote areas. But they come with higher costs and delays. Cellular IoT is faster and more cost-effective, though it may not match satellite coverage in the most remote spots.

How Does Cellular IoT Actually Work?

When data is transmitted from a cellular device, it takes up a certain bandwidth of the electromagnetic spectrum — in much the same way as a radio station. And just like radio stations, when a cellular network shares the same frequency as another, the two can interfere with one another. This is why the FCC closely monitors cell networks and why they have developed a series of towers that all operate on slightly different frequencies but connect to the same network.

A cell includes a tower that uses a different frequency than surrounding cell towers. The size of each cell varies based on its number of users. Densely populated areas might have cells of a few blocks, while rural areas might have cells of up to several miles in radius. As users move from cell to cell, their calls and data are switched from tower to tower. This is commonly referred to as a “handoff.”

This system is the core of both cellular networks and cellular IoT. Let’s look at some of the components of cellular IoT. ‍

  • Chipset, module, and modem: Every cellular IoT device contains a chipset — integrated circuits that manage tasks such as authentication and frequency control. Most IoT designers prefer to start with a module, which includes other features such as an antenna port, processor, and memory. A modem goes a step further, including both the module and chipset and also application software, a slot for a SIM card, end-device certification, and hardware interfaces. ‍
  • IoT SIM card: Traditional SIM cards connect the device to a network and securely authenticates the user. Cellular IoT SIM cards, on the other hand, have different functions since they were created for devices with different needs. Traditional SIMs are usually locked to one network, while some IoT SIMs (like Hologram’s) can hop to the best available network in a particular location. IoT SIMs can be managed remotely at scale, meaning that a business can interact with an entire fleet of devices at once.
  • Device gateway: An integral part of IoT architecture, the device gateway can be linked to Wi-Fi or a cellular network. A device gateway accepts input from an IoT device and allows it to interface with the internet. It also accepts input from other devices, allowing them to talk to one another and make adjustments as needed.
  • Extended network coverage: Cellular IoT uses existing commercial cellular networks, with a large coverage area already established. Depending on which provider a business chooses, their devices may be limited to using certain networks and cells — but carrier-agnostic platforms like Hologram’s allow devices to connect to the best available network no matter where they are in the world.

Which Mobile Networks Does Cellular IoT Use?

Similar to consumer mobile devices, cellular IoT depends on 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G, and low power wide area networks (LPWAN) to operate. A cellular device may be designed to operate on different network technologies depending on its data bandwidth needs and other requirements. Let’s take a look at each cellular IoT network type.

  • 2G/3G networks: Many areas of the world are phasing out 2G and 3G infrastructure, and most major providers have sunsetted or plan to soon sunset these networks. Any businesses still using these technologies will need to instead create devices with alternative network connection capabilities.
  • 4G long-term evolution (LTE) networks: 4G can support both simple and complex IoT devices, as well as those with more real-time demands, making it an excellent choice for use cases that involve video and audio transmission. Remote operation of complex systems can be carried out through a 4G network.
  • 5G Networks: 5G is a transformative technology, allowing for real-time interaction with extremely high data transfer speed and capacity. Augmented reality smart glasses, virtual reality applications, and self-driving cars are some of the cellular IoT use cases 5G makes possible.
  • Narrowband IoT: Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) and LTE machine type communication (LTE-M) are LPWAN technologies that have very wide coverage and low bandwidth. They work well with battery-powered IoT devices that only need to send and receive small amounts of data.
  • Cat-M1: Another LPWAN technology, the Cat-M1 network is specifically designed for IoT applications. It vastly reduces the spectrum at which operations take place, moving it from 20MHz down to 1.4 MHz. This shift allows for an extension of battery life of up to a decade in some devices, given the low power requirements for operation.

How Do I Find The Right-Fit Cellular IoT Provider?

While you have some measure of control over your network choice, it’s often managed through a relationship with a connectivity partner. The huge proliferation of providers today can make it difficult to know what’s right for you. Here’s a few criteria to look for to find the best match:

  • Global coverage and service speed: Look for a provider with stable coverage and access to Tier 1 networks, and that can provide a balance of roaming and direct connections, as needed. For reliability with high-data, an eUICC SIM with fallback is recommended. (Learn more about managing your global deployments with Hologram’s Global IoT e-book.
  • Transparent pricing and no hidden fees: Your vendor should offer transparent pricing and no hidden costs. Don’t forget to fully understand the pricing plan – understand any hidden fees, as well as performance restrictions like throttling or traffic deprioritization.
  • Data security: This is critical, especially for devices handling sensitive data such as medical devices or financial information. Choose a provider with robust security measures and an established track record in your industry.
  • 24/7 customer service: Downtime is a nightmare for most IoT businesses. Having access to 24/7 support to resolve any issues quickly is a must. Look for service teams that have a strong track record and truly know the connectivity space.

Cellular IoT With Hologram

Hologram's SIM provides connectivity coverage in 200 countries and territories with more than 500 carriers. Hologram delivers unparalleled performance by connecting your devices natively to premier, Tier-1 operators to deliver low latency and robust throughput that is 25-75% faster than roaming connections. We’re constantly expanding our native connectivity footprint to deliver the most performant global cellular connectivity network.

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