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11 September 2019

Pod Group backs LTE-M over NB-IoT, looks for nanosat partners

Pod Group’s offering of custom IoT connectivity, PodM2M, provided by divisions that are focused on specific pieces of that puzzle, has taken good shape over the past few years. And for now, CEO Sam Colley is backing one of the two LTE-based machine-to-machine standards, LTE-M, over its low power WAN stablemate, NB-IoT.

Colley told Wireless Watch’s sister service, Rethink IoT, that there are still no eUICC (eSIM) options for NB-IoT, and the lack of SMS capabilities means that in order to perform device profile swaps, providers need to send multiple messages. This necessitates having dual-mode devices, and Colley says that mass deployment of ‘simple NB-IoT’ is still not really an option.

He added that the market is realizing that the number of NB-IoT applications are not as broad as people had initially hoped, and that 2G applications do not neatly translate directly to Cat-NB capabilities. Pricing is not helping this matter, as Colley says that the NB-IoT pricing is still pretty much on par with the previous generation standard, LTE Cat 1, and that LTE-M still has far more traction in the USA than NB-IoT.

To this end, around 90% of the tracking opportunities that Colley sees use LTE-M, with only one customer that Colley can recall using NB-IoT – to track truck trailers. In the past nine months, 90% of leads have been moving to LTE-M, with a few looking at Cat-1. Colley notes that most are not bothering with dual-mode NB-IoT/LTE-M modules, and no one is using 3G in the USA for these applications.

The applications in which NB-IoT is a better fit than LTE-M  are those with low power usage and message overhead. Here, retrofit projects are well suited to NB-IoT, especially where the device does not have to be replaced by the user. Adding a new  Sequans chipset represents a to-market cost of around $25-$30, which Colley says is far lower than what the alternatives can manage today.

He argued that T-Mobile USA does not yet understand what the cost of hosting a NB-IoT SIM on its network is, and so does not know the price floor. Colley believes that, until TMO reaches volume deployments, it will not fully understand the pricing range.

In the area of Unlicensed LPWAN, Colley noted that his firm’s PodM2M was previously working with Sigfox on a dual-mode NB-IoT module. Sigfox’s new approach of self-install dongles and base stations suggests that it is trying to become more flexible, more like its main rival, LoRaWAN. The firm did have a customer that was interested in that approach, but Colley then pointed out that the banding issues with Licensed LPWAN spectrum are complicating things – with around 27 bands globally being used. In 3G, a quad-band module was probably sufficient for global deployments, but this problem has got far worse in L-LPWAN.

In the emerging nanosatellite IoT space, PodM2M is already talking to a potential partner, and Colley believes that the cost of entry to the market is not too significant, and that even the early-stage capabilities of a few messages per day are plenty for many customers. With the huge coverage advantages, integrating such networks into PodM2M’s platform would be the goal, but he notes that it remains to be seen how the upstarts affect the incumbent satellite pricing, and that delays and price wars will mean that only the more feature-rich companies survive.

To this end, Colley says that this desire to crack ‘Mass IoT’ has been one of the main failures of the IoT at large – scalability, security, interoperability, and standardization, are all still up in the air, and it is not clear how the business model for non-WiFi consumer IoT offerings won’t lumber people with subscriptions.

While U-LPWAN definitely kicked the GSMA community into gear, Colley says that this problem remains uncracked because of the global coverage problems – even though it is now clear that there’s an awful lot of market being missed out on. It is also Colley’s view that Ingenu was the best U-LPWAN technology, and most scalable, but that it made the mistake of trying to build the network before it had customers. He believes things could have been very different if it took a more scalable approach.

There are still many concerns for the market, especially for firms that are essentially just reselling SIM cards from the MNOs. There have been a good few years for those vendors, but Colley believes that many MVNOs are going to struggle for profitability in the next few years.

Consolidation between connectivity and software partners is also imminent, and module makers are also getting into these spaces too – looking to unite the different siloed elements of the platform. However, Colley says that the market is still very proprietary, and that it needs to become more open. This would be a challenge and opportunity, and Colley thinks the more advanced MVNOs are the only ones that will be able to keep pace.