Wake up and smell the vaporware of LTE for IoT

November 05, 2016 // By Scott Elder
Analog IC design consultant Scott Elder ponders the race to achieve compliance with LTE Release 13 which includes support for low bandwidth, low power IoT applications.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term vaporware, it simply means hardware or software that is heavily promoted, but not for sale. It exists in the air but is not tangible. This seems to be the case with narrowband Long Term Evolution (LTE) modems for the Internet of Things (IoT).

I’ve been following the rash of pre-announcements, since February of this year, of all the impending LTE modems and chips compliant to the Release 13 standard for low power, low bandwidth IoT applications, and adopted by the 3G Partnership Project (3GPP) this past June. The anticipated volume of Release 13 compliant devices is expected to be huge. The numbers being thrown around are 50 billion IoT products by 2025, or 2020, depending upon who you’re talking to. That’s forty IoT devices in every middle class home around the globe, and then some.

Wireless IoT products that operate on 2G and 3G mobile networks have been around for a while now. Despite some of those networks being shut down, they aren’t cheap. While one can buy a 2G modem module for less than about $8, a 2G subscription can cost $100 per year or more just to send a few text messages. Most existing deployments have been for things like sensors and asset tracking, but to get to 50 billion deployments, things like refrigerators, ovens, and door-bells will need to be included and will need to operate on a significantly lower-cost network.

There have been many recent attempts to get the price of wireless IoT networking down. Most of these approaches have utilized unlicensed radio frequency bands without a network subscription. The rumor mill has predicted the eventual demise of unlicensed band IoT networks since it is crucial to have a reliable connection; something more easily managed in a licensed frequency band.

I’ve not seen any pricing for LTE-IoT network subscriptions yet. That appears to remain top secret. Certainly, it