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AT&T on reducing cellular IoT costs and complexities for developers: “Time to revenue is shorter”

Another from the MWC 2019 vaults, which has so far slipped through the gaps of a hectic quarter at Enterprise IoT Insights. This time, we catch up with Cameron Coursey, vice president of IoT product development at AT&T, to discuss how the US carrier is working to simplify IoT development and popularise its IoT networks.

On the agenda, we consider how LTE-based cellular IoT technologies are “tearing down walls” for developers, by bringing greater simplicity or product design, higher security to IoT devices, more efficient testing and certification, lower development costs, and faster returns. The idea is to slicken the rails of its LTE-M and (brand new) NB-IoT networks for heavier traffic.

AT&T is rolling out its NB-IoT network in the US and Mexico, to accompany its existing LTE-M footprint. “They are very complementary technologies. Some use cases make the most sense for NB-IoT and some for LTE-M,” comments Coursey.

But we start, briefly, with the news AT&T is working with former Microsoft chief technology officer Ray Ozzie’s new company Blue Wireless to introduce a system-on-module (SOM) developer board, called Notecard, to cmbine prepaid cellular with low-power IoT design. The idea is to enable IoT developers to embed NB-IoT and LTE-M out-of-the-box.

Here’s the (first part of the) transcript, as we return to the backrooms of MWC 2019 in Barcelona. There’s a snapshot of the interview, in video form, at the bottom, as well

Can you talk about the Notecard product, and how it will bring traffic onto your LTE-M and NB-IoT networks?

“What we’re trying to do is make it easier for the developer community to take a connected ‘thing’ and make it cellular-connected. Cellular has real benefits. It has higher security. It just works out of the box – you don’t have to programme in a Wi-Fi password and an SSID.

“We’re at a point now with LTE-M and NB-IoT, where the price point is low enough, the size is small enough, the bit rate is low enough that it makes sense to connect a lot of things that in the past would have been connected to Wi-Fi or some other very short-range technology. Ray’s trying to make it easy to make that happen.”

This drive for simplicity is a major theme in the IoT space. You spoke on Sunday night [at the Mobile IoT Summit at MWC 2019] about “tearing down” walls with LTE-based IoT technologies. Can you explain how cellular IoT is bringing down these walls for developers – in terms of security and costs?

“Yes. So, the first of these walls is security. I am not trying to bad-mouth Wi-Fi, but it’s more vulnerable [than cellular]. If you don’t change you’re default passwords, it’s more subject to being hacked – it’s all online. That’s the concern. In the cellular world, you’ve got authentication on the network side, and you can set up private APNs and VPNs, and it’s not actually on the internet. It’s kind of ironic; we call it the ‘internet of things’, but it’s not on the internet. We can keep it private.”

What about the cost factor? Is this just because the radios are simpler, by definition, and LTE scales?

“Yes. It also helps because, as the current drain has gone down and the cost has gone down, you don’t have to manufacture your equipment around the cellular radio. It just fits in, like maybe a Wi-Fi radio. So the low-power wide-area helps on that side. And we’ve been making it more cost effective as well not only because the technology is simpler than regular cellular but because even the testing has been simplified considerably.”

And you gave some numbers around testing – some like quite dramatic numbers, related to time-to-market and cost.

“Exactly right. So the test cases [for NB-IoT / LTE-M] are down between 650-800 less than with category-one LTE devices, and that has resulted in a reduction in testing time by around seven weeks and in costs down by between a third and a half. So sales should go up, as the complexity reduces and the bill of materials – including that non-recurring engineering cost – goes down, and the retail price goes down. You get to market sooner, and your time to revenue is shorter.

And the testing process has changed, as well, right?

“We have radically improved how we test devices. It took weeks in the past for the majority of devices; we can now do it one day. We call it ‘no-touch certification’. We don’t even have to see the devices – the manufacturer uses a SIM to connect to the our connectivity management platform, and runs a few tests. As long as it’s performing okay, and the device doesn’t get aggressive, then that’s it, we’re done.”

This seems significant. Can you talk about how the cellular industry is seeking to remove barriers further by standardising or simplifying the testing process across regions and carriers?

“This helps, to an extent, because people often remark that if their IoT devices are approved on AT&T, then they’re good to go on another network. Because we test what needs to be tested. But we need to go the next step as an industry. We’re trying to figure out as a group – of carriers, equipment players – the things we have in common in our testing, which can be done only once. Because there are things that happen before this no-touch certification – there’s GCF (Global Certification Forum) testing and PTCRB testing. You have to ask why we need both, because they do the same thing.

“There are a lot of new entrants with IoT, which are not familiar with the processes, like smartphone manufacturers, which have been doing it for years. We want to stimulate a large ecosystem of device developers, and we don’t want everybody to have to go through a steep learning curve. So we need to make it simpler. And you can’t really compare a smartphone to these low-cost IoT devices, because the cost of certifying a smartphone is a fraction of the total cost of the engineering and the BOM; it’s a lot more for an IoT device, so it has to be kept small.”

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