AT&T's Penrose: $5 LTE modules for IoT devices are coming

Narrowband LTE and LTE-M are a couple of the new versions of the LTE Release 13 standard that are being touted for their ability to make cellular-enabled IoT devices less expensive. In fact, a top AT&T (NYSE: T) executive said that he believes that sub-$5 cellular modules are coming soon thanks to the proliferation of these versions of LTE.

"The goal with narrowband-LTE is the sub-$5 modules," said Chris Penrose, SVP of AT&T Mobility's IoT Solutions group in an interview with FierceWireless:Tech at the 2016 AT&T Developer Summit in Las Vegas held earlier this month.  

And if the $5 module and even sub-$5 module becomes a reality, Penrose believes that the number of cellular-enabled IoT devices will grow dramatically. He estimates that today only about 10 percent to 15 percent of current IoT devices have cellular capability. "These newer technologies will provide a longer battery life and that will enable you to put LTE in a device vs. just Wi-Fi or some other short-range wireless solution. I believe it will grow the cellular-enabled IoT devices by a significant amount."

Interestingly, Penrose said that he doesn't believe these various versions of LTE Release 13 and the existing LTE CAT 0 and LTE CAT 1 will further fragment the cellular roadmap for LTE. Instead he believes that there will likely be different 'use cases' for all these various versions. And for the cellular operator, it's not difficult to deploy these different versions of LTE because it only requires a software update in the network, not a network overlay. "Until recently, there was a void in the cellular roadmap to address some of these issues like longer battery life and longer lifespan," he said. "We already have a nationwide LTE network. If we can offer different flavors of LTE that can be used for the right 'use case' it is a very efficient way to rollout," he said. "And it can used globally."

However, Penrose added that some of these LTE flavors may overlap in capabilities and in timing which may make it difficult to justify deploying both. For example LTE-M and Narrowband-LTE are likely to be available fairly close to the same timeframe, with LTE-M available in early 2017 and Narrowband-LTE in late 2017.   

That sentiment was echoed by Sequans, which manufactures the chipsets for the various varieties of LTE. In an interview with FierceWireless:Tech, CEO Georges Karam said that currently many operators are rallying around LTE-M but it's still unclear whether there will be enough support for Narrowband-LTE. "We will deliver LTE CAT-M in 2016," Karam said. "We are watching Narrowband-LTE."

Karam also said that the version of LTE that an operator decides to support may depend upon their bigger IoT and M2M strategies. For example, if an operator is pursuing an enterprise base, they may go with LTE-M because the power consumption is better. But if they want more wearables on their network, Narrowband-LTE may be a better option.

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