Vodafone, AT&T, others look to new LTE-based technology to drive Internet of Things

Vodafone's promise to roll out NB-IoT technology across multiple markets in 2017 gives a boost to the low power wide area (LPWA) technology that cellular operators around the world plan to use to compete against proprietary solutions touted by the likes of Ingenu, Sigfox and LoRa.

"NB-IoT operates in licensed spectrum and that is important to us at Vodafone because we need to deliver a high quality experience to our customers," wrote Erik Brenneis, group director, Internet of Things (IoT) at Vodafone, in a blog post. "The alternative, using unlicensed spectrum, risks disruption to the signal from other technologies trying to use the same frequencies."

Last fall, two opposing camps were pushing separate paths for the low-power and low-bandwidth IoT standards, but they ended up merging proposals into what some are calling not a compromise but a combination of the best of both worlds. There is an expectation that the 3GPP standards will be finalized in June.

"It's not a compromise but actually kind of takes the best of a couple worlds here," said Cameron Coursey, vice president of product development for AT&T's (NYSE: T) Internet of Things Solutions organization, in an interview with FierceWirelessTech. "I think the industry really sees this as a success where we brought everybody together. We actually formed something better than what either of the camps would have done on their own." What side was AT&T on? "We were really on the side of how can you deploy this technology in a cost effective way for the cellular operators," in a way that doesn't require a lot of new hardware and installation, he said.

Other operators are bracing for the massive growth expected from the new IoT. "We won't stop delivering for our IoT/M2M customers, so T-Mobile is preparing our network for the massive growth of new Internet of Things devices that have improved coverage, lower cost and extended battery life," Rusty Lhamon, director IOT/M2M at T-Mobile told FierceWirelessTech in a statement.

Last year, Verizon (NYSE: VZ) announced the availability of the world's first Cat 1 LTE network features for IoT, and this year, it teamed with Sequans on LTE Cat M. Sequans rival Altair Semiconductor also is collaborating with Verizon on LTE chipsets for IoT.

Cisco estimates the IoT will consist of 50 billion devices connected to the internet by 2020. As for how carriers are going to handle all of that IoT traffic in addition to smartphone and tablet traffic, some carriers already are taking steps to devote a network core specifically for IoT.

Last year, when it announced its big IoT push, Verizon said the wide area LTE network was built to support things like smartphones and other data-rich devices, but the "things" in IoT don't require that extent of network support. So instead, Verizon said it would be launching a new IoT core that meets new IoT profiles at a much lower cost. 

Coursey said AT&T actually launched its virtualized packet core in Europe, which serves connected car customers, and in the U.S., its Internet of Things connections always have run on a different packet core than what it uses to serve its big smartphone network. The reason has to do with enterprise customers that are pursuing different IoT strategies, where "you need to do some custom configuration for them," and it's much easier to do that if you have segmented traffic off from your big smartphone customer base.

A big believer in SDN and NFV, AT&T also sees applications for those technologies in IoT. In fact, SDN actually can be applied to do an even better job of segmenting traffic for IoT, isolating and securing it. "That's really one of the benefits of virtualization," he said.

According to Tom Keathley, SVP Wireless Network Architecture and Design at AT&T, when you talk about proprietary, that generally limits scale and for most operators, they need to deploy at scale primarily to keep costs low. That's why so far, AT&T has been a big believer in standards-based IoT solutions, he told an audience at the Brooklyn 5G Summit in April.

But that doesn't mean AT&T won't look at proprietary technologies. Coursey does not rule out the possibility that AT&T may consider a proprietary IoT technology in the future. "We're always looking over the technology that's out there. We realize not everything in the Internet of Things is going to be cellular based," and that's quite obvious by the forecasts that are out there. "We embrace different technologies based upon the business case and the needs of the business, so yes, we've looked at the unlicensed ones and we use Wi-Fi today as a means of providing Internet of Things. All of that does not go unnoticed by AT&T."

While talk of IoT has reached a fever pitch and it's tightly associated with upcoming 5G, the IoT actually has been going on for years, including under the umbrella M2M term. Even with the emerging standards, carriers are expected to continue to find ways to differentiate. "We've all kind of deployed IoT solutions, so I think really being able to rally behind a common cellular technology -- it's like a rising tide floats all boats," Coursey said. "We're not trying to do something unique on the cellular technology. We're really trying to make IoT simple for the masses," and to do so securely.

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