Service providers are tapping into LTE-M technologies to provision their IoT applications and services.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is synonymous with ginormous device volumes, potentially even outnumbering the analyst forecasts its generated so far. To achieve that scale, including on the revenue side, mobile operators and vendors must cut the cost of IoT devices and services, beef up indoor coverage and slash the amount of power IoT devices use.
That's why so many operators and vendors are prepping new versions of LTE, often lumped under the catchall of "LTE-M."
"LTE-M refers to Cat M1 and Cat NB1, the two new narrowband categories of the Release 13 LTE standard," says Kimberly Tassin, marketing communications director for chipmaker Sequans Communications . "Many customers are using Cat 1 for IoT apps now since they did not want to wait for Cat M1/NB1, and Cat 1 is available now.
"But Cat M1/NB1 is coming along quickly, and Verizon says it will launch Cat M1 before the end of the year. In any event, Cat 1 will continue to be used for certain applications (banking, security, retail), even after Cat M1 and/or Cat NB1 networks are deployed."
Less = More
A new 5G Americas whitepaper, "LTE and 5G Technologies Enabling the Internet of Things," goes into the technical nitty-gritty, but one high-level takeaway is that the new versions should help LTE accommodate IoT's notorious price sensitivity.
For example, even after LTE debuted, many IoT applications continued to use 2G and 3G technologies such as GPRS partly because their modules are so cheap. That started to change in 2015 as LTE Cat 1 modules arrived.
"The pricing was at or below 3G modules," says Craig Miller, Sequans' vice president of worldwide marketing. "Cat-M basically cuts that in half. Now you're approaching the price of a 2G module.
"In high volumes, you'll see modules under $10. Narrowband (NB) IoT is another 10 percent to 20 percent reduction over LTE-M."
AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) are among the mobile operators rolling out Cat-M now.
"AT&T plans to make LTE-M technology widely available across our commercial network throughout 2017," says Cameron Coursey, vice president of IoT solutions for product development.
Many advantages for operators and customers
One reason why operators are aggressively rolling out Cat-M is because it's a software upgrade, with no hardware changes such as adding antennas or base station cards.
"This was a software push across our LTE network (RAN and EPC)," says Chris Schmidt, executive director, VZ Labs. "It's a little more involved than what we did when we launched Cat 1 [in] November 2015.
"Initially, we'll be leveraging our 700 MHz spectrum to deploy Cat M1. We'll expand this to other spectrum, such as AWS, that we have over time."
The new technologies promise a variety of cost and reliability benefits to IoT users.
"It will connect a wide variety of IoT solutions challenged by existing network technology," Coursey says. "These include smart utility meters, asset monitoring, vending machines, alarm systems, fleet, heavy equipment, m-health and wearables."
Here's why: Vending machines typically are located deep inside buildings, while utility meters often are in basements or underground vaults. Those locations make it tough for signals to get in and out. The new LTE technologies overcome that challenge partly by using a narrower swath of spectrum.
"But you're putting the same amount of power into that narrower channel, so you effectively get better coverage, a better link budget," Miller says.
Some utility meters, such as gas and water, also don't have electrical power nearby, so the IoT module has to run on batteries. The new LTE technologies are designed to sleep for days or weeks, instead of waking up every few seconds -- as a phone does -- to tell the network where it is. This design should be able to wring five to ten years out of the equivalent of two AA batteries. That longevity is key because like a lot of IoT applications, automated meter reading has the strongest business case when someone doesn't have to go out every few years to change the battery.
Power efficiency also is yet another example of how the cellular ecosystem is abandoning phone-centric technologies and business models to make itself more IoT-friendly. many operators forced IoT customers to buy multi-Megabyte data plans that were a better fit for phones than for IoT modules that bleated out only a few hundred kilobytes over the course of a month.
Tim Kridel, Technology Writer, Telco Transformation