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12 September 2016

CTIA: Qualcomm seeks early NB-LTE lead with AT&T and Verizon deals

Qualcomm was doing the rounds at CTIA, announcing new LTE-focused IoT partnerships with the two dominant US MNOs – AT&T and Verizon – covering drones and an IoT application platform respectively.

Qualcomm is hoping to wrap up the IoT LTE market at its earliest stage, rooting itself into high value applications before its rivals catch up. Unsurprisingly, it is initially focused on solutions that will be used by its familiar customer portfolio among mobile device makers and MNOs, but new target clients are sure to appear as the IoT ecosystem broadens.

With AT&T, Qualcomm is investigating the potential for small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS), or drones. Specifically, the project wants to examine how to use LTE in beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) applications – where an LTE connection to a SUAS would enable the drone to operate at long-ranges, and much farther than a connectivity technology like WiFi could provide.

While there are other IoT technologies that can provide similar range and coverage to LTE, such as the various LPWANs in unlicensed spectrum, none of those provides the necessary network bandwidth to carry the images and video that these SUAS platforms are going to be generating. Drones are a great platform for providing visual inspections of infrastructure, or surveillance/monitoring, and can provide the capabilities of human workers at much lower operational price-points, in terms of efficiency.

So the SUAS trial will examine the performance of LTE for these drone platforms, examining the coverage, signal strength, and mobility across network cells, to see if these factors have any impact on the SUAS. For drone use cases that require uptime guarantees, like security or police work, a very stable network is required.

Of course, Qualcomm is hoping that its Snapdragon Flight reference platform goes on to power many of these LTE-equipped SUAS platforms, with its machine-vision technology enabling autonomous flight. Intel is a notable rival in this field, with its Aero development kit, but Qualcomm seems to currently have the edge in the BVLOS applications, due to its wealth of LTE experience. There are also Flight-based drones commercially available too.

“The trial with AT&T is a significant step in the development of connectivity technologies for SUAS, including optimization of LTE networks and advancement of 5G technology for drones,” said Matt Grob, EVP and CTO of Qualcomm Technologies. “Not only do we aim to analyze wide-scalable LTE optimization for safe, legal, commercial SUAS use cases with BVLOS connectivity, but the results can help inform positive developments in drone regulatins and 5G specifications.”

As for Verizon, Qualcomm will be pre-integrating Verizon’s ThingSpace IoT application platform into its LTE Cat M1 modem – specifically, the MDM9206. The pair expect the OEM integration to be available in early 2017, for customers looking to use Verizon’s PaaS and Qualcomm’s modems in their deployments.

The move should enable developers looking to deploy in the US with a fairly easy integration process for LTE Cat-M1 in their designs, with (hopefully) a straightforward upstream pipe to the cloud application that processes the data generated by those edge-network devices. For Verizon, having a plug-and-play integration at the hardware level should also generate business straight from the factories, with Qualcomm adopters opting for ThingSquare for their application requirements.

“When it comes to the IoT, no single company can go at it alone in order to scale from the millions of devices to the billions needed to make the digital world work better for consumers and citizens,” said Verizon’s SVP Enterprise Products and IoT, Mike Lanman. Qualcomm’s SVP Product Management, Raj Talluri, added that wireless technologies are rapidly evolving to deliver scalable and interoperable connectivity platforms in the IoT, and that Qualcomm’s tech is helping operators like Verizon expand into new areas – like smart energy and metering, industrial control and automation, and retail.