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With numbers like “40 billion devices connected in the IoT by 2020” we often get asked where does cellular sit in this future. The answer (partly) lies with what the 3GPP standards body are doing with the LTE Category-0 and LTE-M proposed standards. These two standards directly address the M2M & IoT device market segments with their properties, particularly for trying to address the need for battery powered devices consuming far less power and at a lower cost than their 3G & 4G counterparts.

LTE Cat-0 is associated with the 3GPP Release-12 standard version, whereas LTE-M is associated with the forthcoming Release-13 standard (specifically “TR 36.888”). LTE Cat-0 is ‘real’ today, in that actual chipsets are available supporting this standard, with albeit very early implementations, and LTE-M is in active development with the carrier back-end Rel-13 software required, and the newer chip fabrication designs. The table below shows the different characteristics of Cat-0 and LTE-M, where you can also see a big driver in cost reduction through the reduced modem (chip) complexity;

Cellular-M2M-device-Rel-features

So who is working on this? Well, all the usual suspects in the cellular wireless industry, such as Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei, Sierra Wireless, Telit, u-blox, with some disruptive new plays like from France’s ‘Sequans‘ and Israel’s ‘Altair Semiconductor‘, whom also see the 450MHz band-31 as a global LTE Cat0 & LTE-M M2M band…

Sequans announces Verizon-certified LTE modules

LTE for IoT has Arrived: Altair Disrupts M2M Market with New CAT-0, CAT-1 Chipsets

Leading M2M Solution Provider Selects Altair Semiconductor to Power New 450MHz LTE Router

We also see OTT players like the UK’s ‘NextG-Com‘ providing independent LTE M2M protocol stacks (ALPSlite) and on-chip development tools.

So when is all this cellular based LTE M2M & IoT functionality actually coming to market at the level we see 3G & 4G modems and modules today? Well, looking at Huawei, Nokia, and Ericsson’s necessary carrier product’s back-end application support for the required 3GPP Rel-13 standard, this is all likely to come together sometime around 2018;

LTE-Cat-0-M-roadmap

In the scheme of things, that’s actually not that far away! Close enough to trigger conversations with your regional mobile carriers asking about their own intended plans to support 3GPP Rel-12 and Rel-13 LTE M2M standards.

So where does this leave the current and emerging sub-GHz wireless technologies like Sigfox and LoRa? Well, probably still in a pretty safe place for the foreseeable future, as most carrier’s cellular network planning and deployment’s will only be able to cater for 2-4% of those 40 billion IoT devices by 2020. Cellular networks are currently dimensioned for people, not ‘things’, and this will take some time to transition in mature telecommunications markets, even after switching on LTE-M support. Many lessons still need to be learned from real world Cat-o and LTE-M deployments, and this is where Sigfox and LoRa have a head-start by a few years.

Although we only touched on it briefly above, an interesting area to watch is the proposed use of the 3GPP 450MHz Band-31 LTE spectrum for M2M & IoT globally. This is being driven by the “450 Alliance” in Europe predominantly, but it’s starting to attract some influential members such as Alcatel-Lucent, and already has Altair Semiconductor producing LTE Cat-0 chipsets for use in this band today, and the intent of more mobile carriers to also use it.

Lastly, we’ll end with links to two great presentations on this this subject & technology from Ericsson and Nokia, well worth a view;

Ericsson LTE evolution for cellular Internet of Things

Nokia LTE M2M: Optimizing LTE for the Internet of Things