Sprint to deploy LTE Cat 1 by end of July, with Cat M coming in mid-2018

Sprint says it will complete its deployment of LTE Cat 1 technology across its nationwide network by the end of July, and it plans to begin deploying LTE Cat M in mid-2018 followed by LTE Cat NB1.

The internet of things (IoT), along with wireless and wireline, is one of the three critical business lines for the Sprint Business portfolio, according to Mohamad Nasser, general manager of Sprint’s IoT Business Unit.

“We’re making great progress on our road map in support of the evolution of the IoT standards and Access Technology,” he said in a press release. “We are investing effort and capital to make sure that Sprint is well positioned to capitalize on the incredible growth that IoT will experience globally.”

LTE Cat 1 is designed to support low-power applications on the Sprint network such as vehicle telematics and industrial IoT applications. LTE Cat M1 and LTE Cat NB1 will support numerous other applications requiring ultralow-throughput and power consumption such as industrial sensors, asset trackers or wearables, the operator said.

“As one of the leading enablers and solution providers of the internet of things, Ericsson believes in its power to transform industries and capture new growth,” said Glenn Laxdal, head of Network Products for Ericsson North America, in the release. “Ericsson looks forward to partnering with Sprint to deploy Cat M1 next year and bring the transformative power of IoT to the Sprint Nationwide network.”

Sprint’s announcement was timed to coincide with the IoT World 2017 convention in Santa Clara, California, this week. In March, Verizon launched the first nationwide commercial 4G LTE Cat M1 network, and AT&T is expected to launch its nationwide Cat M1 network anytime now during the second quarter.

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Brian Partridge, an analyst at 451 Research, said Sprint’s news provides needed clarity for Sprint’s IoT customers and prospects. “They had the luxury of waiting a bit as they are not shutting down 2G as aggressively as Verizon and AT&T, so it had a bit more leeway,” he told FierceWirelessTech.

For much of last year, competitors that are deploying noncellular-based technologies, like Ingenu, Sigfox or LoRa-based, were said to have a window of opportunity because the cellular operators based their IoT solutions on standards, which take longer to get finalized and deployed. But cellular companies put the pedal to the metal and are now closing the gap.

However, Partridge noted that in terms of aggressive schedules for LTE-M, the alternatives are also going after markets like tank monitoring for which LTE-M is likely less cost competitive than the likes of Senet, Ingenu or Sigfox.

As of the fourth quarter of 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.

Sprint, which describes itself as the seventh largest provider of IoT devices in the world, said it continues to evolve its IoT solutions portfolio, and LTE Cat 1 will provide long-term, future-proof solutions for clients.  

Most of the largest U.S. operators are deploying Cat M before adding NB-IoT. Verizon also has plans to deploy NB-IoT in the near future, where use cases would include very light touch sensors requiring extended battery life, a spokesperson told FierceWirelessTech earlier this month.

AT&T didn’t respond to a request for comment but last year said it was working with Ericsson to bring NB-IoT to market to support devices like smoke detectors, pollution monitors and industrial/agricultural sensors.  

T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray tweeted in March that his company is focused on narrowband IoT and plans to support it in 2018. He didn’t mention Category M, but the uncarrier said earlier this year that it was continuing to work on delivering both Category M and NB-IoT. T-Mobile also said that in 2016 it provided customers ways to future-proof their IoT solutions on today’s LTE networks with support for Category 1 modules and extended 2G network operations to support customer transitions to LTE through 2020.