AT&T joins industry rush toward NB-IoT

AT&T announced Wednesday it will join its rivals in launching an NB-IoT network for internet-of-things deployments. The carrier’s NB-IoT network will launch early next year in the United States and by the end of next year in Mexico.

AT&T’s NB-IoT network will sit alongside the operator’s existing nationwide LTE M network for IoT services, which the carrier took nationwide in the second quarter of last year. As AT&T’s David Allen explained, LTE M connections can support speeds of up to 386 Kbps, voice calls and mobile applications. NB-IoT, on the other hand, supports speeds up to 100 Kbps and cannot support voice or mobile applications. However, he said NB-IoT is ideal for simpler, on-and-off IoT services.

“We do view them as very complementary technologies,” he said.

Allen said AT&T will deploy NB-IoT in the same way it rolled out LTE M, via commercial pilots and, eventually, nationwide services. He said the technology requires software updates to the carrier’s base stations as well as tweaks to its core network, though he declined to say how much that work would cost. He said AT&T would launch NB-IoT services in its Band 12, 2 and 4 spectrum holdings, likely in the guard bands.

“The time seems to be right to deploy a NB IoT network,” Allen explained, noting that AT&T’s enterprise customers are increasingly asking for an NB-IoT option. That, coupled with the growth of the technology in Europe and Asia and a move by module suppliers to build dual-mode NB-IoT/LTE M devices, pushed AT&T to pull the trigger on an NB-IoT deployment.

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That’s notable because AT&T executives for years have said the operator would consider an NB-IoT deployment, but they generally declined to offer a firm commitment—until today. AT&T joins rival Verizon on the NB-IoT front; Verizon in February committed to an NB-IoT launch this year. T-Mobile, meanwhile, was an early leader on the NB-IoT front, announcing plans last year to deploy the technology.

Sprint also has said it will support NB-IoT services, but only if customers ask for them. And Dish Network has allocated up to $1 billion to build an NB-IoT network as the first phase of a wider wireless effort.

RELATED: Sprint’s new IoT strategy and network to take root in Q4

Interestingly, AT&T’s Allen said that the carrier is increasingly seeing interest in IoT service plans that bundle the cost of IoT connections inside the cost of a device. “They don’t want a separate data plan,” he said of the carrier’s IoT customers. “They want it bundled together.”

“With NB IoT, you’ll see that model accelerate,” he said.

A recent forecast released by Mobile Experts predicted that NB-IoT will claim 57% of cellular IoT shipments by 2022 as demand for cheaper, lower-powered services and devices ramps up.