LTE is hitting the field in the IoT game

AT&T, Verizon, and chip makers are aiming at lower speeds and longer battery life with LTE Category M1

To get small, low-power IoT devices online, it’s no longer necessary to saddle them with full-scale cellular radios. Independent players like Sigfox and Ingenu are expanding their specialized networks, and now a low-power version of LTE is coming to major operators.

So-called LTE Category M1 is making a big splash at the CTIA Super Mobility show in Las Vegas this week. The biggest U.S. carriers just announced their plans for the new technology, with Verizon Wireless promising a commercial Cat M1 deployment by year's end and AT&T announcing a pilot in the San Francisco Bay Area starting in November.

Cat M1 can be a software-only upgrade to carriers’ networks but not to the devices in the field that will use it. Chip vendors are jumping on board with Cat M1 silicon for those in the next few months.

Low-power LTE networks promise cellular-grade range and coverage without the cost and complexity of full-scale LTE devices. They will also help battery-powered devices stay alive for a decade or more, chipmakers say.

Cat M1 is a big leap, Machina Research analyst Aapo Markkanen says.

“For an enterprise that’s considering its connectivity options in the IoT, there’s actually something to get excited about,” he said in an e-mail interview.

It can lower device costs, cut power consumption and provide better indoor coverage, Markkanen said. Meanwhile, Cat M1 is designed for use by established carriers, on licensed, protected spectrum with potentially national coverage.

Cat M1 and other LPWA (low-power wide area) networks are good news for anyone looking to roll out sensors, meters, and other smart devices over a wide area. In so-called smart cities, for example, low-power wireless radios are likely to appear in parking meters, environmental sensors, transit vehicles, and other equipment. Smart home devices, health monitors, and wearables may also take advantage of them.

Low-powered systems are enough for these uses because the devices usually don’t send very much data and in some cases don’t send it very often. It doesn’t take a multi-megabit LTE link to notify the cloud that a parking space has a car in it.

But there’s a flood of options coming online and expected in the next few years, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Some carry more data and some use less power.

Verizon says its Cat M1 network will have a top speed of 375Kbps (bits per second) and the same latency as the regular LTE network. AT&T says its pilot network, a full-duplex system that will use more spectrum, will have a peak data rate of 1Mbps.

Until now, mobile operators’ older 2G and 3G networks have been the glue that connected many low-power devices to back-end systems. But those aren’t the most efficient ways to use precious licensed spectrum, so carriers want new tools that work with LTE. An even more low-power LTE system called Category NB-1, or NB-IoT, is on the way. At the same time, startups see an opening for entirely new technologies.

Investing in any of these is a big commitment when IoT devices may stay out in the field for many years. No one could be blamed for taking a wait-and-see attitude.

But for those with needs that match up with it, Cat M1 will be here soon.

Silicon vendors including Qualcomm, Sequans, and u-blox plan to soon deliver chips that will support Cat M1 and, in some cases Cat NB-1 also. On Tuesday, Qualcomm and Verizon said Neptune Technology Group, a maker of water metering technology, will use Qualcomm’s MDM9206 LTE modem with Category M1 capability in its products.

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