Verizon commits to nationwide NB-IoT network buildout in 2018

Engineers from Verizon and Ericsson complete their first successful Narrowband IoT Guard Band data session in Westlake, Texas. (Verizon)

Verizon confirmed plans to build a nationwide NB-IoT network covering 2.56 million square miles by the end of this year. The network will essentially piggyback on Verizon’s existing LTE network and will offer inexpensive, slow-speed data connections for IoT-style devices.

“We are committed to providing more customer options to the IoT ecosystem by leading with new technologies and capabilities such as NB-IoT Guard band that efficiently use dedicated spectrum and target different customer requirements for throughput and battery life,” said Bill Stone, VP of network planning at Verizon, in a release from the operator.

Verizon said it recently completed a Narrowband IoT Guard band data session test with vendor Ericsson. Verizon’s NB-IoT network would sit alongside its existing LTE M network, which is also geared toward IoT applications. Verizon flipped the switch on its LTE M network (also called CAT-M1) roughly a year ago.

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“While CAT-M1 is targeting a wide range of applications for business customers such as wearables, fleet and asset management, NB-IoT Guard band focuses on applications needing data rates below 100 kbps,” Verizon explained in the release. “NB-IoT Guard band technology occupies a dedicated frequency of 180 kHz bandwidth designated for IoT applications which does not share spectrum resources with commercial smartphone traffic.”

But perhaps the most noteworthy difference between NB-IoT and LTE M is that LTE M supports voice calls while NB-IoT does not. Such IoT network upgrades typically only require software upgrades and no hardware changes.

Verizon’s announcement that it will launch NB-IoT this year appears to be an acceleration of its initial plans. The operator told FierceWireless in September that it would test NB-IoT in 2018, with an eye toward deploying the technology at some point after that.

Verizon’s NB-IoT announcement also appears positioned as a response to T-Mobile, which announced just yesterday it was “first to successfully test Narrowband IoT in guard bands.”

RELATED: T-Mobile’s Kuoppamaki explains carrier’s IoT deployment strategy for NB-IoT vs. LTE M

Verizon and T-Mobile aren’t alone in their plans to offer NB-IoT services. Dish Network said late last year that it expects to ink its first deals with tower companies early next year as it prepares to build an NB-IoT infrastructure. And it has already finalized deals with multiple vendors of telecom gear.

As for Sprint, in May of 2017 the carrier said it would complete its deployment of LTE Cat 1 technology across its nationwide network by the end of July 2017, and that it would begin deploying LTE Cat M in mid-2018 followed by LTE Cat NB1. (LTE Cat NB1 is now generally referred to as NB-IoT.)

And that leaves AT&T essentially alone in eschewing NB-IoT. As early as this month, AT&T’s Chris Penrose said the operator continues to evaluate whether it wants to make the investment in NB-IoT. “What it comes down to is what different things can you do with Narrowband that you potentially could not do with M, and what are those use cases out there,” Penrose said earlier this month. “What we’ve seen to date, there isn’t really a big cost difference between the two right now.”

When questioned on the topic by FierceWireless following Verizon's announcement, AT&T reiterated its position: "Our strategy remains the same. We’re committed to our LTE-M network and driving adoption in the U.S. and Mexico," the carrier said in a statement. "We continue to assess the market for NB-IoT and will pursue it if we feel it offers an advantage to our customers over LTE-M."

Article updated Feb. 2 with additional commentary from AT&T