Editor's Corner—AT&T and Verizon are the ones to beat in IoT

Monica Alleven editor's corner

Following Verizon’s news earlier this month that it would be the first operator to launch a nationwide commercial LTE Category M1 network, AT&T lately has been making several announcements related to the internet of things (IoT), including new tools for its solution providers to make it easier to navigate the space.

For a long time, AT&T was the clear leader in IoT, going back to its emerging devices division that was cultivated by Glenn Lurie, who is now president and CEO of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Operations. Alas, AT&T’s lead with GSM has gone away just as GSM has gone away, and LTE, in a way, has leveled the playing field, noted Brian Partridge, research vice president at 451 Research.

While AT&T enjoyed its time in the sun, Verizon sort of had to play catch up. And catch up it did in a big way, hoisted by the launch of its ThingSpace platform. It also made some smart acquisitions, like FleetMatics and Sensity Systems, in the IoT space. And it was the first to launch a nationwide commercial LTE-Cat M1 network, so there’s that.

However, AT&T is still big in the connected car and digital smart home space, and Verizon's network advantage isn’t going to last long: AT&T still expects to launch its LTE-Cat M1 network in the second quarter of this year, so that’s imminent.

RELATED: Verizon launching nationwide LTE Cat M1 network for IoT

Both Verizon and AT&T have described Cat M as a game changer, enabling sensors and devices that require lower throughput, have a longer battery life and are more efficient than current IoT solutions. Use cases include vehicle telematics, asset tracking and wearables.

It also means that little window of opportunity is closing for some of the noncellular standards-based rivals, such as Ingenu, Sigfox and LoRa-based technologies, although I’m sure the smaller rivals do not see it that way. They’re going to slug it out until the bitter end or until investors say otherwise.  

RELATED: AT&T: No need to wait on IoT, LTE-M is right around the corner

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak with Sue Galvanek, vice president of marketing, pricing and product solutions at AT&T Partner Exchange, which launched that collection of new IoT resources for solution providers.

Galvanek declined to comment on what AT&T’s competitors are doing, but in general said that when there’s a big growth opportunity in the market, people will enter the market and go after the growth. Citing a statistic about the IoT having an economic impact of generating more than $11 trillion by 2025—which is just eight years away—“I think there’s plenty of opportunity for all types of solutions to be in the market” to solve customers’ issues, she said. “I would expect more to move into this space and for there to be plenty of opportunity to go around.”

She also noted part of AT&T’s strategy: “We put the solution providers at the center of what we are doing,” she said. “We listen to them first and then go and build what they need.”

All of this is not to say that Sprint and T-Mobile aren’t in the game, but Verizon and AT&T have a lot more people to devote to the IoT. I recall Sprint talking about connecting garbage trucks years and years ago, and it curated a nice business in the M2M space. T-Mobile also talks about doing some “uncarrier” things in IoT.

They’re all running the race, but AT&T and Verizon are out ahead even as the gap between them is getting closer. As of Q4 2016, the 451 Research North American Mobile Carrier Monitor showed AT&T with 31.5 million active connections and Verizon with 29.2 million. Sprint had an estimated 12.5 million, and T-Mobile had 6.6 million, according to 451's modeling.

AT&T and Verizon are still the 800-pound gorillas in the market.

“This is a heavyweight battle,” Partridge said. But he added that it goes back to the carriers having slightly different strategies. Certainly in smart cities, these two are going to be fighting it out, but the network part will soon make it a pretty even race in that department.

What’s clear is nobody seems to be backing down. They’re all duking it out, whether it’s AT&T and Verizon or Ingenu and Sigfox. Maybe it has something to do with that $11 trillion economic impact that Galvanek mentioned. - Monica, @fiercewrlsstech