AT&T: Jury is still out on NB-IoT

AT&T added a record 2.6 million IoT connections in the first quarter.

AT&T will continue to evaluate Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) technology for its Internet of Things (IoT) strategy, but so far, it’s not seeing any big reason to jump on that bandwagon.

The operator last week announced the nationwide launch of its LTE-M IoT network, with plans to cover Mexico by the end of this year. LTE-M offers a number of advantages over prior cellular-based IoT technology, including longer battery life, better coverage underground and deep inside buildings, as well as reduced module size.

NB-IoT, which is being rolled out by operators mainly in Europe and Asia, is a low power wide area network technology that also offers advantages over GSM/GPRS. Both are part of the Release 13 standard.

Expectations have been for operators in the U.S. to roll out LTE-M first and then turn to NB-IoT, but that’s not necessarily going to be the case with AT&T at least. (A Verizon spokesperson told FierceWirelessTech earlier this month that it plans to deploy NB-IoT “in the near future,” with use cases including very light touch sensors requiring extended battery life.)

RELATED: AT&T launches nationwide LTE-M network for IoT

For AT&T, deploying LTE-M could be accomplished faster based on its network architecture, but the operator also sees a few differences between it and NB-IoT, according to Chris Penrose, president of IoT Solutions at AT&T.

“We think that M is actually the technology of choice from our perspective” for a few reasons, he told FierceWirelessTech. “One, you’ve got the ability to do two-way communication with LTE-M versus with Narrowband IoT, it’s just going to be one-way communication from the device back into the network. If you think about—particularly around security and maybe the ability to want to update that end point with additional software capability sets over the course of time—having that ability to not only receive information but also send information to the end device, that’s enabled with M but not with Narrowband IoT.”

Second, from a throughput perspective, history has demonstrated that when people start off with a use case and they see what the connectivity can do for them, they start to think about what else they can do with it. Having greater capacity for throughput on M provides some flexibility to continue to create more and more solutions utilizing the enhanced speed and throughput that you have on M over Narrowband. Typically with Narrowband, it’s going to be a very specific low data solution and you’re not going to necessarily be able to add on multiple solutions on top of that connection, he said.

Third, “we’ve demonstrated the ability to do voice over LTE-M,” and if you consider the alarm industry, for example, and the ability or need to do an emergency call, that can be accomplished with the M technology from a VoLTE perspective. In addition, from a mobility perspective, that’s also there for M whereas Narrowband is typically going to be more of a fixed end point solution, he said.

“Those are all the advantages we see on M,” he added. The big question is whether the cost delta will be significantly different between Narrowband and M and “as of today, they are not.” AT&T is pricing its LTE-M module as low as $7.50 each, including SIM card and IPR rights, with monthly plans starting as low as $1.50 per month per device. “We’re not seeing a cost advantage on Narrowband in relation to M at this point,” he said.

There’s also a question of how each of them performs for in-building performance and “we’re still early on to see if there’s a big delta.” But when you lay all the advantages out, “we actually see LTE-M as a superior solution in this space and we’re going to continue to evaluate Narrowband to see if it’s something that we could or should go down the path on, but we’re leading with LTE-M for now.”

AT&T works with chipset suppliers Altair, Qualcomm and Sequans and module suppliers Sierra Wireless, Telit, u-blox and WNC.

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Much has been made of the competition between cellular-based solutions and those offered by aggressive players like Ingenu, Sigfox, Senet and others. Key for AT&T is its ability to boast a complete nationwide footprint while those competitors are still building out markets.

Plus, “we believe we have the most secure solution in the marketplace,” which, as untold hackers have demonstrated, is highly important in the IoT world.

Even with Verizon upping its IoT game in recent times, AT&T still sees itself as the leader of the pack, having crossed over 30 million connected devices on a global scale and adding a record 2.6 million IoT connections in the first quarter alone. “We feel very, very good about where AT&T is positioned against the competition and our ability to continue to lead,” he said.