T-Mobile's NB-IoT asset tracking is for the one percenters

Nick Wood
By Nick Wood

Jul 16, 2019

via Flickr © Ben Frantz Dale (CC BY-SA 2.0)

via Flickr © Ben Frantz Dale (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • Telco's partner Roambee says they're enabling mass market asset tracking
  • But at $10 per device, per month, this is for firms wanting to track high-value items
  • Non-cellular IoT, such as the humble RFID tag, is a much cheaper option

NB-IoT asset tracking from T-Mobile US is here, but it's probably not for you, because unless you regularly ship cars, jet engines or ancient antiquities across America, you probably can't afford it.

That's because it costs $10 per device, per month, excluding taxes and fees. It's tough luck if you go outside of T-Mobile's NB-IoT network coverage, because there's no roaming on offer.

Maybe I'm missing something here, but that sounds quite expensive. For example, if you look at the US car market, it churns out 2.5-3 million vehicles per month. If you want to do per-vehicle tracking on NB-IoT, that's a lot of extra money, compared to say RFID. Sure, it doesn't provide the same granularity in terms of data, but RFID tags cost $0.10-$0.50 each, and can be printed out by the enterprise customer as needed. RFID scanners are fairly inexpensive, and these days you can get models that come with Bluetooth so you can use them in tandem with a smartphone connected to the cloud. Unlike an RFID tag, one assumes that an NB-IoT tracker can be reused, but it'll take time for the recipient to return said tracker, and it's safe to assume some will get broken along the way.

Cars have a pretty hefty supply chain. What if you wanted to use NB-IoT to track the journey of certain materials and components that come together to complete the vehicle? You could potentially add tens, if not hundreds of dollars to production costs.

Cars are expensive, so a customer might be quite prepared to assume the cost of tracking parts and the finished product from the factory to the dealership, but you can't say the same for every vertical.

It's also worth remembering that asset tracking might stop items going missing or getting stolen, but it won't necessarily prevent items from being damaged in transit. Being able to monitor the delivery truck as it tumbles off the side of a mountain doesn't mean the pallet of goods it was transporting will survive unscathed.

Of course, there's more to asset-tracking than connectivity, there's the service too. This is where T-Mobile and its partner in this, Roambee, will really have to deliver $10-per-month-per-device's worth of value.

We already know that US consumers pay more than most for mobile data services. For example, in India you can get a 4G data service with a 25 GB allowance for less $3 per month. At that kind of price, if you wanted to, you could probably do a live video stream of a package's entire journey from start to finish.

Roambee CEO Sanjay Sharma proclaimed that his company, along with T-Mobile, are "enabling the mass market adoption of enterprise asset tracking."

If that is to be the case, the cost of the connectivity and the service needs to be low enough to be immaterial to the enterprise, and at current prices, I'm just not sure we're there yet.

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