Making LTE lighter, cheaper (and slower) for the Internet of Things

Sue Marek

BARCELONA, Spain--When the wireless industry talks network technology, the discussion always gravitates toward speed and throughput--and the need for more of both. That's why it surprised me to hear some buzz at this week's Mobile World Congress conference about LTE (CAT 1), which provides a maximum of 10 Mbps downlink speed compared to LTE's peak downlink speed of 300 Mbps. But the logic behind this slower speed version of LTE makes a lot of sense for its intended application--the Internet of Things--particularly when it is coupled with reduced module size, less power consumption and perhaps more importantly, lower cost.

The Internet of Things is often described as the connecting of everything from smartphones and tablets to cars and appliances to the cellular network so these devices can communicate with each other and improve efficiency through the automation of certain tasks. But not all those devices need the speed and throughput of LTE. In fact, many cellular operators today encourage their M2M customers to use their 2G and 3G networks for connectivity as a way to keep their costs lower and maximize the use of those networks.

What makes LTE (CAT 1) so compelling is that it will likely drive more connections to the network--and help the industry achieve the predicted 50 billion connections by 2020 that Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) and others have been touting for the past several years.

It's probably no surprise that Ericsson is one of the proponents of LTE (CAT 1). The company announced that it collaborated with chip maker Sequans and Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) to test LTE (CAT1) devices and infrastructure using Verizon's LTE network. The trial took place in fourth quarter 2014 and demonstrated that LTE (CAT 1) devices could coexist with high-performing LTE devices.  

According to Matts Norin, head of portfolio management at Ericsson, LTE (CAT 1) only requires a software addition to the network and LTE (CAT 1)-capable devices.

Norin said that another advantage of LTE (CAT 1) is that it reduces complexity in the network because in the future operators could eventually eliminate having M2M customers on 2G and 3G networks running simultaneously with LTE and instead just have LTE.  He also said that there are other categories of LTE in the works. For example, LTE (CAT 0), and even LTE (CAT -1) that will further reduce the cost and size of LTE and the power requirements.

But Verizon isn't the only operator exploring LTE (CAT 1). Chris Penrose, senior vice president of IoT Solutions at AT&T (NYSE: T), told me that LTE (CAT 1) and other iterations like it makes sense when you consider possible IoT solutions that could be developed if LTE modules were cheaper and smaller and required less power. In particular, Penrose sees more possibilities for wearables to have cellular connectivity if some of the current LTE size and power requirements were minimized. "There's a real benefit for wireless companies to have more devices connected on the network," he said.

Currently there's no timeframe for when LTE (CAT 1) will become a commercial reality, but Sequans CEO Georges Karam said in a statement that the company hopes to help make the IoT ecosystem flourish thanks to LTE (CAT 1) solutions.  

LTE (CAT 1) is an interesting area to watch, particularly as we hear more and more about different industries looking to mobile as the answer to increased efficiency and reduced costs.  IoT places a key role in that--and LTE (CAT 1) may make it a reality.--Sue

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