AT&T's IoT head: We think about security all the time

LAS VEGAS—When it comes to IoT, security is an increasing concern as it relates to cars, healthcare and more, and AT&T considers itself in a fairly unique position given the amount of traffic that crosses its networks every day around the world.

“We think about security all the time,” said Chris Penrose, president of IoT at AT&T, on the sidelines of CES 2018. “We design everything we do with security in mind.”

AT&T takes a multilayered approach to how it’s delivering security, from the device to the network to the application. And because it sees so much traffic, it’s “pretty uniquely positioned” in the area of threat protection, as it often sees threats before anyone else, he said.

“We are investing significantly around entire suites of security solutions to really make sure we’re doing as much as we possibly can to secure those IoT devices,” and keep them off the public internet, he said.

RELATED: AT&T launches nationwide LTE-M network for IoT

AT&T’s LTE-M network brings with it carrier-grade security, as well as extended battery life, lower cost modules and improved coverage both underground and deep inside buildings. AT&T launched the LTE-M network nationwide last year, and it just recently put the finishing touches on its LTE-M network in Mexico.   

Another standards-based cellular IoT technology, Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), was launched by T-Mobile last October, with plans to take it nationwide by mid-2018. Earlier this week, T-Mobile announced a NB-IoT price plan for just $6 per year.

Penrose didn’t cite specific cost figures but said AT&T is priced competitively with its LTE-M offerings. But the trend with LTE-M and other low-bandwidth solutions is to bundle the service into the cost of the product or device. For example, the LTE-M Button that AT&T launched with Amazon Web Services last year came promotionally priced at $29.99 and it includes three years of service or 1,500 clicks, whichever comes first; there was no additional price for data.

“We offer a tremendous amount of flexibility” for customers to custom-design their IoT solutions to meet their needs, he said.

He also said AT&T continues to evaluate whether it wants to make the investment in NB-IoT. Verizon, which also launched a nationwide LTE-M network last year, has said it plans to test NB-IoT this year and potentially add NB-IoT network capabilities to its existing Cat M1 network. AT&T previously has said the jury was out as to whether it would add NB-IoT to its roster.

”What it comes down to is what different things can you do with Narrowband that you potentially could not do with M, and what are those use cases out there,” Penrose said. “What we’ve seen to date, there isn’t really a big cost difference between the two right now.”

There are some things that LTE-M can do that can’t be done with Narrowband, so “fundamentally, unless there’s a huge shift in the cost of the devices or the performance between those two technologies, right now that’s what we’re looking for is kind of the trigger point to say we would need to go to Narrowband.”

AT&T was able to move faster on LTE-M because of its network architecture and so far, it’s been able to meet the needs that it’s seeing out there around low-power, wide area network solutions.

That could always change. Other operators, like Orange, are combining both their licensed cellular IoT with unlicensed, like LoRa. Would AT&T ever consider doing that?

“Depending upon the use case, there may be some times where it makes sense to potentially integrate both technologies together,” he said. An example may be in a mine, where there might be an unlicensed network in the mine with hubs out to a cellular network. “We’re a multinetwork approach,” he noted. If customers need satellite because they’re shipping containers over the ocean, they can get that; same with Wi-Fi and wireline access—AT&T has those to offer in the mix.

“We’re really in a good place where we can say, what is the application and how do we get you on the right network at the right time” and at the best possible cost, not only domestically but worldwide, he said.

Of course, drones are also a part of IoT, and AT&T is using drones not only to inspect its own towers but looking to use drones in services where they’re used as inspection vehicles.

With FirstNet, AT&T also has the opportunity to use drones in emergency situations, for example if there’s a fire and they’re trying to understand the best entry or exit point. Drones can be used to survey an area without putting emergency personnel at risk. “I think there’s a lot of interesting and exciting opportunities to use drones in that space,” he said.