As the Internet of Things (IoT) evolves, it is already impacting every industry and every application.  But, with the current technology options available for cellular operators, it is still inefficient to deploy as the principle solution for last mile connections to devices or things.  While cellular operators have been providing machine-to-machine (M2M) solutions for several decades now, the business proposition for IoT is different and demands a lower cost model for true IoT to be profitable.  The current LTE M2M solutions are not scalable in a cost-effective way.  They need expensive modems, occupy too much bandwidth, and draw way too much power to operate efficiently as a wireless media for IoT.  So, a new solution is needed to accommodate the millions of expected IoT connections over any publicly shared cellular networks.

The cellular industry has been hard at work to devise new wireless protocols and technologies to support IoT.  They have considered many ideas and technological solutions.  It is imperative that whatever solution they select dovetails in gracefully with the existing voice and data traffic on their existing 4G network topologies.  By exploiting their competitive advantage with the existing cellular infrastructure, cellular operators are well positioned to provide IoT services to their customers.  All be it as an OpEX expense.

But first, they need to embrace a wireless solution that gives them the approved business case that justifies the deployment of millions of narrowband static connections.  These connections have very different characteristics compared to typical customers using voice and data today.  In most cases, they are very narrowband connections, that transmit only sporadically, are spread-out over the network topology, and need lower Quality of Service (QoS) priorities compared to consumer smartphones, tablets, and computers.  Thus, they do not need the entire suite of broadband capabilities that a quality 4G LTE connection offers to consumers today.  They need much less.  And, they also want to pay much less to satisfy these needs.  So, there exists a serious mismatch between IoT and LTE connections.

There are many new proposed standards evolving that hope to fill in this gap and better align to the customer’s needs.  Some are better for public wireless while others are ideal for private wireless.  The list includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  1. LoRa
  2. Sigfox
  3. Neul (now Huawei)
  4. NB-IOT
  5. Clean-Slate
  6. LTE Cat 1
  7. LTE Cat 0
  8. LTE Cat M1
  9. LTE Cat M2
  10. LTE Cat NB1 (NB-IOT)
  11. EC-GSM
  12. 5G IOT
  13. RPMA
  14. IEEE 801.11ah
  15. IEEE 802.11ad
  16. IEEE 802.11aj
  17. IEEE 802.11ay
  18. IEEE 802.15.4g/e
  19. UNB
  20. Bluetooth LE
  21. Weightless-P
  22. WiGIG (WiFi Alliance; IEEE 802.11ad)
  23. AirGig (AT&T)
  24. FiOS 5G Variant (Verizon)
  25. WebPass (Google)
  26. and more…

After much testing and evaluation, we are now down to a few serious finalist to content for the de facto standard role. The short list includes:

  • LTE Cat M1 (eMTC)
  • LTE Cat M2
  • LTE Cat NB1 (NB-IoT)

Carriers seem to be torn between LTE Cat M1 (aka LTE-M) and NB-IoT. Both solutions are being ratified and will be promoted by different vendors. Some chip makers are including both standards not wishing to take sides with one versus the other. A few leading experts have argued that a converged standard will evolve that sees these two protocols combined into what is being called, LTE Cat M2. The LTE Cat M2 specification is still under development at this time. Only time will tell what the winning standard will be.


On October 26, 2016, AT&T has enabled LTE-M technology on its first site in the San Francisco market to support the pilot of AT&T’s LTE-M Low-Power Wide-Area network at the AT&T Labs in San Ramon. AT&T plans to make the technology widely available across our commercial network throughout 2017.

LTE-M will offer a unique combination of enhanced coverage and longer battery life with carrier-grade security for a new generation of industries and applications.

It will connect a wide variety of IoT solutions challenged by existing network technology. These include smart utility meters, asset monitoring, vending machines, alarm systems, fleet, heavy equipment, mHealth and wearables.

Key features and benefits expected from LTE-M are:

  • Lower costs for modules that connect IoT devices to the LTE network.
  • Longer battery life; up to 10 years for certain enabled IoT devices.
  • Better coverage for IoT devices underground and deep inside buildings.

Enterprise customers and technology leaders are collaborating on the LTE-M pilot.

Participants in the pilot will include:

  • Badger Meter – analyze how the LTE-M network, which is dedicated to supporting the IoT, may be used to enhance communications for smart water devices.
  • CalAmp – explore how the LTE-M network can help companies more efficiently manage their connected vehicles and assets.
  • Capstone Metering – demonstrate how LTE-M can improve Smart Cities sensor technologies. It will look to increase battery life and improve connectivity and sensor monitoring for underground smart water meters.
  • PepsiCo — examine and test ways that sensors can improve the in-store experience with smart vending solutions for the thousands of PepsiCo products consumers love and enjoy.
  • Samsung – evaluate an LTE-M-based solution to enhance performance for consumer solutions. This may include wearables or other consumer devices.

The pilot will also include solutions from a robust contingent of technology providers:  Altair, Ericsson, Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., Sierra Wireless, Telit, u-blox, Wistron NeWeb Corp. (WNC), and Xirgo Technologies.  The technology is expected to be available to customers outside of the pilot starting in 2017.

So, we will all need to watch how all of this plays out in the public wireless sector.  In the private wireless sector, we are seeing LoRa winning (CapEX solution).  LoRa now has a considerable lead as the technology of choice now that Cisco has embraced it as one of their preferred IoT solutions.  Manufacturers like Cisco will offer both public and private connectivity as they need to service all customers.

So, after starting with perhaps 20 different proposed narrowband technological solutions, we are now down to just three: two for the public wireless – LTE Cat M and NB-IoT, and one for the private wireless – LoRa.  I suspect that in a few months there will be just two standards as LTE Cat M and NB-IoT merge together.

Let’s never forget that Wi-Fi is still evolving dramatically as well with several new variants to the core 2.4 GHz standard at 900 MHz (IEEE 802.11ah) and in the 40 GHz to 60 GHz bands (IEEE 802.11ad, IEEE 802.11aj, and IEEE 802.11ay).

The millimeter wavelengths centred around the 60 GHz band is seeing a dramatic increase in technological developments that will play a major role in future IoT deployments too.  New products are being developed and promoted by: WiGIG (WiFi Alliance; IEEE 802.11ad), AirGig (AT&T), FiOS 5G Variant (Verizon), and WebPass (Google), to name a few.  While the distances (range) of these ultra high frequencies in very short, the data carrying capacity is very high due to the excessive bandwidth available.

Wi-Fi, in its various forms, will have an important role to play in IoT too.  Wi-Fi will be leveraged by both camps – public and private wireless network operators.  So, it may be the bridge that permits unification and exchange between these different approaches.

Still confused?

About the Author:

Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies. He is a Senior Executive Consultant with IBM Canada’s GTS Network Services Group. Over the past 11 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN:TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO:TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX:TSX.V). He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and on the Board of Advisers of four different Colleges in Ontario as well as for 16 years on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. He holds three Masters level degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.