AT&T upped the ante in its battle with rival Verizon to lead the US market in launch of cellular-based low power IoT (Internet of Things) services, switching on a commercial site in San Francisco running LTE-M technology.

LTE-M is one of three standards backed by the 3GPP to support the fast-rising Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) market. NB-IoT is another technology seeing strong support in Europe and Asia in particular, while the third is EC-GSM-IoT. These standards were ratified just a few months ago (last June). As a result, commercial availability lags other, non-cellular LPWA offerings (using unlicensed spectrum) such as Sigfox, LoRa and RPMA (from Ingenu Networks).

In a statement, the operator said it has “enabled LTE-M technology on its first site in the San Francisco market to support the pilot of AT&T’s LTE-M LPWA network at the AT&T Labs in San Ramon.” It’s claimed to be North America’s first LTE-M site. The operator plans to make the technology available across its commercial network throughout 2017.

LPWA technology offers operators the chance to connect ‘things’ like smart utility meters, vending machines, alarm systems and wearables via low-cost ($5-10) modules, supporting a battery life of up to ten years and better coverage underground and inside buildings. The LTE-M variant of LPWA allows the reuse of LTE equipment and spectrum and supports speeds of around 100 kb/s.

AT&T said its pilot will involve enterprise customers and partners such as Capstone Metering (smart cities), PepsiCo (smart vending) and Samsung (wearables and consumer devices).

Kit is provided by Altair, Ericsson, Qualcomm, Sierra Wireless, Telit, u-blox, Wistron NeWeb and Xirgo Technologies.

Interestingly, AT&T believes one network is not enough to serve the IoT market. While LPWA is one option, it also offers satellite and dual-mode cellular/satellite connectivity.

AT&T’s 2017 commercial launch target may end up trailing efforts by chief rival Verizon. In August the country’s largest operator announced plans to deploy LTE-M by the end of this year, claiming it will become the first US operator to launch the new technology.