The race to commercialize LTE Cat-M1 is on, with both AT&T and Verizon declaring firsts as they try to outmaneuver the other in wooing customers to their cellular standards-based technology for the Internet of Things.
Last week, Verizon announced that it completed what it believes to be the world’s first live, over-the-air LTE Cat M1 data call, conducted on Verizon’s pre-commercial LTE Cat M1 network in South Florida. The call used a prototype device, running Sequans Communications’ Monarch pre-commercial LTE Cat M1 chip, communicating live over the air to an LTE base station.
“We actually made a data call over a live network with a real production quality chip and on a live LTE network,” said Chris Schmidt, executive director, device technology in the Verizon Labs group.
Verizon has been working on this milestone with partners going back probably almost two years, he said. Just before the CTIA show in September, Verizon said it will launch Cat M1 commercially before the end of the year and will go nationwide with Cat M1 in the first quarter of next year.
But rival AT&T last week said it switched on North America’s first LTE-M enabled commercial site, starting a process that “will transform the Internet of Things for years to come.” The operator’s first site in the San Francisco market supports a pilot of AT&T’s LTE-M low-power wide area (LPWA) network at the AT&T Labs in San Ramon, California, and AT&T plans to make the technology widely available across its commercial network throughout 2017.
While both claims may be legit, Verizon insists it's on a faster track than AT&T, and that it has a history of firsts, from nationwide LTE deployment to Cat 1 and 5G, to defend.
“We’ve been driving this aggressively for a couple years,” Schmidt told FierceWirelessTech, starting with when they decided to explore the LTE Cat M1 technology when they saw what it could do from a perspective of the cost of goods, ease of integration, battery life and coverage.
“It was very, very compelling for us across multiple use cases,” he said, and noted that the narrative from non-cellular competitors in the LPWA network space – one that claimed cellular technologies won’t be able to compete until 2018 – isn’t accurate.
“We’re open for business now, so to speak,” Schmidt said. “We’re actually talking to customers now, talking to partners now, and launching at the end of the year and going nationwide the first quarter of 2017.”
Of course, it’s not just operators singing the praises of LTE Cat M1 and disagreeing about who was first. Altair Semiconductor’s ALT-1210 is one of the first chipsets supporting LTE Cat-M, and the chipset supplier said the ALT-1210 is the first to enable Cat-M devices on an LTE-M enabled commercial site as part of AT&T’s launch in San Ramon. Sierra Wireless also said its modules are part of the AT&T pilot.
“We were the first chip vendor in the world to demonstrate a real commercial chipset running Cat M1 against that live [AT&T] network over the air, so this is not lab testing or any demonstration,” Eran Eshed, co-founder and VP of worldwide sales and marketing for Altair, told FierceWirelessTech. “This is a live LTE signal running over a real network that is up and running by AT&T.” (Altair is also an IoT partner with Verizon.)
While Category 1 technology has played an important role and Altair believes it will continue doing so, Cat M1 takes it a step further in terms of reduction in power and cost and an increase or extension of coverage. Larger cells and fewer base stations are used to cover a given geographical area or alternatively offer better indoor, in-building or basement coverage for IoT devices, Eshed said.
“There’s been a lot of announcements, people saying ‘we’ve done this testing and that testing and we’re going to demonstrate this and that,’ but this is the first time anybody’s done it,” Eshed said. “I think it’s a significant milestone because the industry has been fairly confused so far with the status of Cat M1, and there’s been a lot of marketing campaigns [around dates and availability]. We’ve proven together with AT&T that the technology actually works, not only in the lab but on real networks. It’s a real cell site running LTE Cat M1 on AT&T’s spectrum.”
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While Cat M1 offers significantly lower cost and better coverage, it enables use cases that previously weren’t possible, such as connected meters that are installed in basements or water meters that might be covered with a metal top in a backyard but now with link budget improvements can actually be reachable. On top of that, with Cat M1, voice-enabled products are possible, whereas with Narrowband (NB) IoT technology, it’s technically not feasible due to the latency being too long, Eshed said.
“That’s one of the key advantages of Cat M1 over NoB, it can do voice,” Eshed said.
Still, the differences between the two are not as great as some people may think, and the costs are similar, he said. M1 will be here first, and there’s a geographical split between M1 being mostly popular in the U.S. and Japan and NB-IoT being more popular in Europe and China.
“We actually think Cat M1 will gain more momentum as people realize that the differences between them are not as significant as they are led to believe by some interested parties and that from a time-to-market perspective, M1 is going to be here at least six to 12 months before Narrowband IoT,” he said.
AT&T is looking to connect things like smart utility meters, asset monitoring, vending machines, alarm systems, fleet, heavy equipment, mHealth and wearables. Some of the early use cases for Verizon include appliance automation in general, whether it’s vending machines or other things typically serviced by people manually: in-home security, telematics applications and wearables.
“It’s exciting to be working with this because, from my perspective, it's about how we’re actually being challenged on use cases from our partners on things that we might not have thought about before, and we’re working together with them to try to enable some of those use cases,” Schmidt said.
While they may not agree about who was first, it’s clear the cellular operators are putting a kibosh on the time-to-market advantage that other IoT technologies have been claiming.
“I think that fundamentally, the proprietary IoT technologies stepped into a vacuum that existed, and the main merit in these technologies; their main advantage was time to market and this is what they’ve been selling,” Eshed said.
With cellular IoT, “it’s here today, working," he added. " We may be the first but there are other guys following and it’s very soon going to be here in commercial form and Cat 1 and NB IoT give a very strong head-to-head fight to the proprietary technologies and in fact are superior in quite a few aspects. So I think maybe the proprietary LPWA ecosystem was hoping that it will take longer to take these technologies up and running and matured, and I think quite a few people are surprised today to see how far we’ve come."