“We are tearing down walls” – AT&T promises faster testing and returns on LTE-M, NB-IoT
Cameron Coursey, vice president of IoT product development at AT&T, got a laugh from the audience Sunday afternoon at the Mobile IoT Summit, a developing curtain raiser at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, on the eve of show proper. “All this talk of putting up walls,” he said. “We’re tearing them down.”
His point was that ‘mobile IoT’, or ‘cellular IoT’ – the low-power wide-area (LPWA) IoT the operators run on their LTE networks – is at last bringing some order to the chaos of the internet-of-things market. Coursey, on stage on Sunday (March 24) and in conversation with Enterprise IoT Insights yesterday, suggested the IoT market is boxed in and kept down by four walls – in the form of security, interoperability, cost, and skills.
Three of these barriers are removed, or lowered at least, by LTE-based networks in licensed spectrum. MWC is an operator-run show, of course, and there was a sense in the auditoriums and meetings rooms that the carriers are bringing their weight to bear on the IoT market, which has largely grown up around rival technologies in unlicensed bands. LTE, by contrast, affords scale and consistency.
AT&T deployed its LTE-M network in the US and Mexico through 2017 and 2018; it will roll out NB-IoT in the Spring. They will work in concert, he noted. Operator strategies around the two are dictated by market forces, driving decisions around which of them are “first out of the chute”. He said: “We think they are complementary.” The first affords greater mobility, and the second lower power.
“LTE-M and NB-IoT help to solve at least three of these issues: security, interoperability, and cost,” commented Coursey. “And even the [issue of] skills is helped by mobile IoT because these are simpler technologies.” They are 3GPP technologies, and as such, leverage well-established security and interoperability mechanisms. Because they are simpler, he reasoned, they should also be cheaper.
One of the biggest barriers for technologies in licensed spectrum is device testing and certification. “There is less rigour with unlicensed technologies,” he noted. But the burden is lifting for LTE-M and NB-IoT: there are around 790-800 fewer test cases for LTE-M/ NB-IoT versus LTE Cat-1. This reduces the testing time by around seven weeks, he said, and costs down by between a third and a half.
At the same time, chipsets, modules and devices are emerging that support both of the licensed LPWA equivalents, and SIM connectivity is being embedded onto boards ( with eSIMs) and integrated into the systems ( with iSIMs) themselves. All of which simplifies the market for developers and providers, he said, and translates to faster times to market and to value.
“This work will continue to lower the size and cost, and simplify solutions going forward,” said Coursey. “What is revealed when we break down walls is these mobile IoT technologies can move cellular into areas it hasn’t been before.” It was a rhetorical gesture to the broad set of IoT use cases that were part of the mainstream agenda at MWC.
Separately, but on the same lines, AT&T is working with former Microsoft chief technology officer Ray Ozzie’s new company Blue Wireless to introduce a system-on-module (SOM) combining prepaid cellular connectivity, low-power hardware design, simple software design, and secure communications into a single solution.
The product, called Notecard, will enable developers of a broad range of commercial and industrial products – battery-powered, fixed, or mobile – to embed connectivity that works out-of-the-box.
“The need is pervasive for connected devices and assets in business, in the field and even in homes. Today, things like washing machines, dishwashers, construction or oil rig equipment are coming off the assembly line fully equipped for connectivity, but actual connection rates are low because of their reliance on Wi-Fi,” said AT&T in a statement.
“Multiple steps are required to register the product, deal with firewalls, download apps, manually pair devices with the network and keep them connected. Without a compelling reason to do so, consumers simply may not have the time and patience… Costs can build for providers.”
Notecard, embedded into IoT products, requires no configuration. It will connect on AT&T’s LTE-M and NB-IoT networks without a subscription. AT&T listed candidate devices: home appliances, alarm systems, meters, tank level controls, construction equipment, HVAC systems, locks and gates, vending machines.
Ozzie said: “Notecard will be an immensely compelling solution for businesses looking to economically cloud-enable their products and to gain deep visibility into their operations. Integrating cellular can now be even easier than Wi-Fi. But what I’m most proud of is that it’s a simple experience that developers will love.”
John Donovan, chief executive of AT&T, commented: “Our low-power wide-area networks over LTE are built for IoT, delivering better indoor coverage, longer battery life and other efficiencies. Notecard will make it easy and economical for our business customers to put IoT solutions to work. It’s been great teaming up with Ray to develop this all-in-one solution to help unlock the potential of IoT.”
Pricing and availability of Notecard is pending.