AT&T says customer demand prompted NB-IoT launch

AT&T decided to add narrowband IoT to its network toolbox because some customers are asking for a lower-cost IoT solution, and because the NB-IoT technology is a better fit for some use cases. The carrier already offers LTE Category 1 and LTE Category M1 for customers who want to connect assets and equipment to the IoT, but AT&T says NB-IoT opens up new use cases.

“We already are using LTE-M, and based on a lot of customer feedback we felt that we needed complementary services for other use cases, such as in a fixed asset tracking environment with very low bandwidth uses,” said Shiraz Hasan, VP, IoT solutions at AT&T. “The motivation is cost savings primarily, and the other thing is the ability to utilize the tech a little better because it penetrates even better than LTE-M.”

Shiraz said AT&T has a lot of customers in the security and alarm industries, and that many of these companies are evaluating IoT technology and learning that NB-IoT may serve their needs best. Alarms and locks are often located deep within buildings, so using cellular connectivity to monitor equipment health requires radio transmissions that can penetrate thick walls.

Other types of companies are also approaching AT&T about NB-IoT. “We have been approached by companies across many types of industries: electronics, appliances, commercial generators, HVAC installed on rooftops,” said Shiraz.

Most of these types of equipment have one thing in common. “They are not going to move but they need to provide data and info, if a state they are in changes,” explained Shiraz. He added that construction companies are also interested in NB-IoT because they can attach modules to portable equipment like lighting and cranes, and use NB-IoT to track these assets while they are stationery.

IoT use cases that require mobility or video may require higher bandwidth connectivity. AT&T remains committed to its LTE-M network, which the carrier is using to connect its Amazon Button. The button is attached to supplies to allow companies to re-order with one touch, but Shiraz said the same technology can be applied to many other use cases. For example, an LTE-M button in a public restroom could be pushed to alert the nearest maintenance worker if a restroom needs service. Similarly, a factory worker could report a machine that needs service by pressing an LTE-M button.

RELATED: AT&T launches LTE-M Button, ponders NB-IoT

“We are very committed to a dual path,” Shiraz said. “We see LTE-M and NB-IoT as very complementary services.”

Shiraz said AT&T plans to roll out LTE-M and NB-IoT across both the U.S. and Mexico so that customers can track assets internationally. The carrier expects to add NB-IoT to all its cell sites by the end of 2019.

Shiraz said NB-IoT will be deployed in the guard band, and that AT&T can add NB-IoT to its LTE sites via an over-the-air software upgrade. Other sites will need a physical software upgrade in order to support the technology.