AT&T, other network operators navigate IoT turmoil

AT&T is reviving its 'Connected Solutions' unit to navigate the intersection between 5G and IoT. Cameron Coursey, a longtime AT&T IoT exec, will lead it.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

January 26, 2023

5 Min Read
AT&T, other network operators navigate IoT turmoil

It's been tough for network operators to gain traction in the market for Internet of Things (IoT) connections, but some like AT&T are giving it another go. The company is reviving its old "Connected Solutions" business unit to help navigate the intersection between 5G and IoT.

AT&T Connected Solutions is being spun out of the operator's broader Business Wireless unit, with connected cars as the first area of focus.

"This is really taking those teams that had been dispersed and bringing them back into one unit," said Cameron Coursey, a longtime AT&T IoT executive who will serve as the interim leader of AT&T's Connected Solutions relaunch. During an interview, he explained that the operator's IoT reorganization will put dedicated technology and sales executives alongside each other instead of separating them across different AT&T units.

Coursey will report to Thaddeus Arroyo, AT&T's chief strategy and development officer, as part of the operator's new Emerging Businesses arm within its corporate strategy and development organization.

Coursey noted that AT&T counts a total of 107 million IoT connections, which he said makes the company the leader by far in the US market. A large portion of those connections are cars. Indeed, the first iteration of AT&T's Connected Solutions carved out a leading position in the connected car market.

Coursey expects the rebooted Connected Solutions unit to initially sell 5G connections to automobile makers with hopes of gaining some early wins before expanding into other business and industrial sectors.

Figure 1:

An industry in tumult

The IoT market has long been tricky for network operators, equipment vendors, systems integrators and others. It continues to promise huge opportunities, but the razor-thin margins required to make most IoT use cases work have pushed all but the most persistent players out.

In the latest example, equipment maker Ericsson announced in December that it sold its IoT Accelerator and Connected Vehicle Cloud businesses to Aeris. But it isn't alone.

As noted in a lengthy and thoughtful post by Counterpoint analyst Neil Shah, other companies exiting the IoT business include:

  • Sierra Wireless, acquired by Semtech Corporation

    • Thales' cellular IoT business, acquired by Telit

    • Google, which shuttered its IoT Core business

    • FogHorn, acquired by Johnson Controls

    • IBM, which retired its Watson IoT Platform

      And the list doesn't include IoT network operators that have been dealing with significant challenges, such as Helium, Sigfox and Ingenu.

      "It's a big world out there," Coursey told Light Reading, arguing that there will eventually be a role for all kinds of IoT services and networks, whether that's Amazon's Sidewalk or AT&T's narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT) network.

      Coursey suggested that AT&T will focus its attention on the high end of the IoT market, where buyers are more willing to pay for premium 5G connections delivering speed, security and reliability.

      From national to international plays

      AT&T isn't the only big US wireless network operator looking to capture growth in the IoT market. Verizon has long played in the sector too, including through its ThingSpace platform.

      TJ Fox, SVP of industrial IoT and automotive, has led Verizon's IoT business since 2021, including its efforts to connect automobiles. However, Verizon does not publish details about its IoT operations, including the number of connections. Neither does T-Mobile.

      "These operators, they don't know how to handle the part of the market that we address," said Ivo Rook, a top executive at Germany's 1NCE, which has built a business reselling cellular IoT connections for $1 per device/sensor per year, a price most network operators can't touch because it isn't profitable.

      Before joining 1NCE last year, Rook launched Sprint's Curiosity IoT platform in the US, and then headed up T-Mobile's IoT business after T-Mobile acquired Sprint in 2020. He said 1NCE makes a "solid margin," though he wouldn't provide details. The company's roughly 15 million IoT connections run through several cellular IoT networks, some of which are operated by its investors, Deutsche Telekom and Softbank.

      During a recent interview with Light Reading, Rook said IoT is nearing an "inflection point," where finding connections will be as simple as plugging a charger into an electrical outlet. "The only thing the network should do, like an electricity network, is connect to a device," he said.

      Rook said the problem with the IoT market so far has been the wide range of networking options – from NB-IoT to LoRa – that make it too complex. It's like trying to plug in a charger across ten different kinds of electrical outlets.

      But others aren't so sure that the IoT sector is preparing to calm down.

      "The IoT opportunity is significant but also challenging to capitalize if a vendor lacks capabilities, scale, right partnerships and focus to self- or co-create value. The complexity and scale benefits are different for every application and vertical, and the vendors need to be prudent to prioritize and partner," wrote Shah, of Counterpoint. "The fragmented nature of the IoT ecosystem will see waves of consolidation and growth. As a IoT player always be ready to pivot or have an exit plan!"

      Related posts:

      Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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