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18 July 2019

T-Mobile launches Cat-NB asset tracking bundle, confusing value

T-Mobile USA has proudly announced that its Cat-NB powered asset tracking offering is now available on its network. Using Roambee’s BeeAware devices, the cost starts at $10 per month, per device, and at $120 annually, that is still a long way away from the pricing envisioned by the most enthusiastic LPWAN advocates.

Of course, this is a bundled service that includes the Roambee devices themselves and the data to support them, as well as the portal to monitor the assets and an API to tie in with your cloud applications. But the costs seem high for what is ostensibly an IoT application, whereas, if this were being offered on a higher bandwidth LTE variant, we probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

In our LPWAN Forecast, we determined that asset tracking was not a good fit for L-LPWAN, particularly Cat-NB due to its relatively slow handover between cells. Cat-NB is well suited for knowing where an asset is within a few minutes, but if you want a near-real-time answer, you’re going to have to pay more and use satellite-based GPS and cellular.

Again, when you start trying to evaluate these technologies, you begin chasing your tail because of the diversity of requirements in the use cases. For asset tracking, the ten-year battery life is not much of a concern, as conventionally, you want to track high-value assets, and these assets are in frequent human contact – so changing out a device or replacing its battery is not a burden.

So then, if battery isn’t a priority, what exactly do you gain from going to Cat-NB? In theory, you should get good indoor coverage, but once you start arguing that indoor visibility is a priority, you stray immediately into a WiFi or Bluetooth beacon argument, supported by RFID or something like Zigbee. And again, if you need to know the location of an asset within a building or defined geographic area, are you sure you really need national wide-area coverage.

If the asset at hand spends a lot of time outdoors, then you kick the hornet’s nest that is coverage – that Cat-NB and Cat-M still don’t have 100% territory coverage, often confined to whatever percentage of the LTE footprint that the MNO has upgraded so far. Once that concern is in play, you stray into satellite territory, as so long as the asset has a view of the sky, it can use satellites. With the new range of nanosatellite options coming to market, and their very low pricing, asset tracking has never had more options to choose from.

The mantra we frequently use for the IoT is that ‘low power equals low value,’ meaning that if the business case mandates a ten-year battery life because sending a technician out to change a battery would scupper the RoI, that specific device can only be useful at scale – when thousands of these devices are viewed as a system, rather than as individuals.

In those sorts of use cases, you need a low-power protocol, but asset tracking is not one of these. In asset tracking, you are paying a premium to know the location of a thing, and so there’s room in the budget to use satellite and cellular, both in terms of battery life and dollars. Low-value asset tracking can be done with RFID, Bluetooth beacons, WiFi hubs, and the occasional cellular backhaul unit – and this is before we let the U-LPWAN crowd loose, who would love to beat the $120 figure.

All of this is to say that we can’t see who this new T-Mobile offering is being aimed at. For some context, this $10/month fee is the same price that AT&T and Verizon are charging for adding an Apple Watch to a subscriber plan, and the same price that AT&T charges to add a car via OBD-II WiFi dongle. AT&T even offers 22GB of data for a car starting at $20 per month, and so when you think of the new T-Mobile Cat-NB offering, that $10 monthly for what equates to a very small amount of data looks quite steep.

But this is before we get to AT&T’s recent pricing announcements, which we covered back in May, which clock in at $30 per year but could be as low as $14 per year for an LTE Cat-M or Cat-NB package and a 500KB bucket of data. Based on those figures, 1MB of monthly data is $20 a year, 5MB is $50 a year, and 50MB is $144 per year.

However, in 2017, Roambee was charging around $1 per month for access to the data from the BeeBeacons, and was using a business model that didn’t charge for the devices themselves, and only charged for access to the data. The BeeAware tags that T-Mobile is offerings are some of the lowest-cost Roambee devices, and interestingly can be configured to use LoRaWAN and Sigfox.

These tags are the without-infrastructure option, while Roambee’s other devices require supporting hubs. Roambee has a few hardware designs that are going to be in play here. In a logistics application, you would attach the BeeRouter to the truck and the BeeBeacons to the items you want tracked, but you would be able to add BeeBeacons to all manner of devices too. The BeeFleet ODB device is intended to provide the hub functions for fleets.

So, if Roambee could effectively offer its service without charging an upfront fee for the hardware, are you sure you’ll be getting a competitive price from T-Mobile – if you are factoring in the cost of the device into your per-month cost? Would a U-LPWAN alternative make more sense, or would going to Roambee directly for an infrastructure-supported deployment come in cheaper? The pair are very enthusiastic about the new offering, but for many in the LPWAN game, paying a premium for Cat-NB is a bemusing concept.

“We’ve hit a sweet spot of value and security with Narrowband IoT that we think will really kickstart the growth of the asset tracking segment,” said Mike Katz, EVP of T-Mobile for Business. “This is great news for companies that need an asset tracking platform, but it also marks a new era for T-Mobile for Business. We’re combining the Un-carrier approach, the strength of our sales team and the reach of our nationwide network to deliver unique solutions. Much more to come!”

“We’re enabling mass market adoption of enterprise asset tracking!” said Sanjay Sharma, CEO of Roambee. “Powered by Roambee’s purposefully-built, capex-free sensor technology and asset tracking platform, this solution eliminates the four biggest barriers to enterprise IoT adoption: high cost, cumbersome setup, constant maintenance, and complex data security. Together with T-Mobile’s NB-IoT network and Roambee’s proven solutions that global companies have come to rely on, we’re here to make IoT asset tracking universally deployable on a large scale.”