T-Mobile USA has announced that an NB-IoT asset tracking service is now available on its 4G network. Using Roambee’s BeeAware devices, the cost starts at $10 per month per device, or at $120 annually, which is still a long way away from the pricing envisioned by the most enthusiastic low power WAN (LPWAN) advocates.
This is a bundled service that includes the Roambee devices themselves and the data processing to support them, as well as a portal to monitor the assets and an application programming interface (API) to tie in with cloud applications. The costs still seem high for an IoT application, with limited bandwidth and data requirement.
And there are question marks over this type of application. Wireless Watch’s sister service, Rethink IoT (RIOT), recently published its ‘LPWAN Forecast’, in which it judged that asset tracking was not a good fit for licensed spectrum LPWAN (L-LPWAN) networks such as LTE-based NB-IoT, because of that technology’s relatively slow handover between cells.
NB-IoT is well-suited to locating an asset but takes a few minutes, so if near-real time tracking is needed, satellite-based GPS and or full LTE would be better, if more expensive.
For asset tracking, the 10-year battery life promised by LPWAN is not a big attraction, since most assets that are worth tracking have relatively high value and are in frequent human contact, so the cost and labor to change a device or battery is acceptable.
If battery life is not a priority, what else does NB-IoT deliver? Indoor coverage is strong because it runs in low band spectrum, but indoor-centric tracking can use WiFi or Bluetooth beacons combined with RFID or Zigbee.
If the asset d spends a lot of time outdoors, coverage is key, but so far, NB-IoT – and the other LTE-based IoT option, LTE-M – do not have close to 100% territory coverage in the USA. For real ubiquitous coverage, satellite is the best option, and a new range of nanosatellite options is coming to market, with very low pricing compared to traditional satellite services.
In asset tracking, organizations are paying a premium to know the precise location of a valued object, which means there is room in the budget to use satellite and cellular. Lower value and indoor asset tracking can be done with RFID, Bluetooth beacons, WiFi hubs, and the occasional cellular fallback unit – and this is before we consider Unlicensed LPWAN options like LoRaWAN, which will be working hard to beat the $120-a-year price tag.
So it is hard to see the target market for TMO’s service. To add some context, the $10-a-month fee is the same price that AT&T and Verizon are charging for adding an Apple Watch to a subscriber plan, or that AT&T charges to add a car via an OBD-II WiFi dongle. AT&T even offers 22GB of data for a car starting at $20 per month.
On NB-IoT or LTE-M, AT&T has announced pricing as low as $14 a year for a package with 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.
There is also confusion over where TMO is adding value, since its prices seem higher than those from Roambee itself. In 2017, Roambee was charging around $1 a month for access to the data from its 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 offering are some of the lowest cost Roambee devices, and interestingly can be configured to use LoRaWAN and Sigfox as well as NB-IoT. These tags are the without-infrastructure option, while Roambee’s other devices require supporting hubs.
If Roambee could effectively offer its service without charging an upfront fee for the hardware, is TMO’s price really competitive, when factoring in the cost of the device into the 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 NB-IoT 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 Uncarrier 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,” added 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.”