“We’re just getting started on industrial IoT,” says AT&T, as it preps for 2019 NB-IoT rollout
AT&T will go after the broad industrial ‘internet-of-things’ (IIoT) market with an expanded connectivity portfolio as it unfolds its new narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT) network across the US and Mexico through 2019.
“We’re just getting started on unlocking the promise of the industrial internet of things for manufacturing, energy, utility, oil and gas, transportation and other industries,” Shiraz Hasan, vice president of IoT solutions at AT&T, told Enterprise IoT Insights.
“The potential is tremendous as it helps reduce costs to the business, while improving efficiency and productivity with a high degree of security.”
Hasan pointed to AT&T’s recent collaboration with Honeywell to deliver IoT-based solutions to aircraft and freight industries in various regions, across Europe and the Americas, among other regions, as an example of its building momentum.
It is also working with Caterpillar, manufacturer of construction equipment and power solutions, to connect and manage its machines and engines. AT&T is providing the facility for Caterpillar to gather near real-time data about equipment performance in order to improve efficiency and safety.
Its expanding smart cities programme will also make use of its NB-IoT network, as it comes available, said Hasan. “We’ve committed our resources and IoT expertise to create game-changing solutions for cities,” he said, noting already its work with eight cities and universities in the US to connect utility meters, street lights and water systems.
AT&T’s ‘spotlight’ partners in the smart-city space are Atlanta, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Chapel Hill, Chicago, Dallas, Miami-Dade County, Montgomery County, and Portland. It has tested its smart cities framework, which covers infrastructure, citizen engagement, transportation and public safety, with these partners.
The operator said at the end of last month its new NB-IoT network will serve the growing needs of business customers for a wider range of low-power wide-area (LPWA) IoT solutions. The arrival of dual-mode NB-IoT and LTE-M chipsets and modules means customers can support a wide range of applications globally, it said.
AT&T is following the same rollout plan it did for LTE-M, with over-the-air software upgrades of existing cell sites. It will pilot with NB-IoT with customers by the end of 2018, and launch NB-IoT across the US from early next year, with the Mexican wave following by the end of 2019.
“Like LTE-M, NB-IoT will operate alongside our existing 4G LTE network, and also within our mobile 5G network that is scheduled to launch in parts of Dallas, Atlanta and Waco, Texas, by the end of this year,” said Hasan.
The two technologies are complementary, he said. “NB-IoT is ideally suited to meet very basic data requirements for use cases with limited data needs, while LTE-M supports more robust capabilities requiring higher bandwidth, mobility and VoLTE.”
They lend themselves to different applications, with crossover nevertheless. “Both are designed to support cellular IoT applications that are low cost, require long battery lives, compact modules and better coverage for IoT devices underground and deep inside buildings. LTE-M is ideally suited to support such devices as asset trackers, fleet tracking, smart watches, alarm panels, pet trackers, smart home appliances, patient monitors, gas/water meters and point-of-sale devices,” he said.
“NB-IoT is ideal for smoke detectors, smart parking meters, smart agriculture sensors, electric meters, industrial monitors, building automation and simple on-off devices. There is some overlap – for example both can support smart metering depending on customer requirements.”
AT&T debuted its first commercial LTE-M site in the US in 2016, and rolled out LTE-M services nationwide in the second quarter of 2017. It introduced LTE-M in Mexico at the end of 2017, following trials in Tijuana and Puebla; it claimed at the time it would cover 400 million people in North America with its licensed LPWA equivalents.
Rival carrier Verizon was quicker off the mark with LTE-M, launching in March 2017. Verizon has said variously it will have NB-IoT services by the end of 2018, although it has refused, when pressed, to be held to a launch schedule.
Does AT&T expect, now, to be the first in the US with twin LTE-M / NB-IoT services? “We can’t make that prediction. But note, we are the only carrier that has announced deployment of both LTE-M and NB-IoT across the US and Mexico,” said Hasan. He added: “What’s more important than being ‘first’ is meeting the needs of customers. They have asked for more choices as they embark on massive IoT deployments. Offering both LTE-M and NB-IoT will meet the growing needs of business customers for a wide range of IoT solutions.”
LTE-M chipsets from Verizon have fallen beneath the magic $10 mark recently; its pre-certified portfolio, which has just swelled to include French maker Sequans’ latest chip, currently lists LTE-M chips for just $6.50, which excludes the $1.50 rebate available on each. By contrast, the price of Sigfox chips has fallen to less than $1 per unit, and will go “below 50 cents in Sigfox land,” according to one commentator.
What does AT&T make of the pricing of cellular IoT services? Is the level coming down, to the point modules are comparable in cost to their non-cellular LPWA equivalents? LTE-M modules are available from AT&T from $7.50, Hasan noted; future NB-IoT pricing will keep pace. “You can expect similar low-cost pricing with annual and multi-year service plans,” said Hasan.
But it is a trade-off in terms quality, he claimed. “Non-cellular technologies have lower-priced modules due to their simpler design. But the market has shown the advantages of cellular far outweigh that slight price differential. Both NB-IoT and LTE-M have clear advantages over technologies that operate in unlicensed spectrum. These include greater protections from interference, broader coverage availability and carrier-grade security.”