'World's smallest' 3G module will bring Internet to all sorts of devices

The U-blox SARA-U260 chip module has been certified for use on AT&T's network

The SARA-U260 3G/2G module from U-blox.

The SARA-U260 3G/2G module from U-blox.

AT&T has certified a 3G chip module that the manufacturer calls the world's smallest, but that doesn't mean the carrier is going after toddlers as its last untapped customer base.

The U-blox SARA-U260 module, which measures 16 by 26 millimeters, can handle voice calls. But it's not designed for really small phones for tiny hands. Instead, it's meant to carry the small amounts of data that machines are sending to each other over the "Internet of things," where geographic coverage -- 3G's strong suit -- matters more than top speed. That means things like electric meters, fitness watches and in-car devices that insurance companies use to monitor policyholders' driving.

The AT&T certification means device makers can now start building products around the U260 module for use on the carrier's network. The U260 module is equipped for use on 3G networks with roaming to 2G where necessary, such as in rural areas. It includes features for various types of connected gear, including telematics devices, point-of-sale terminals, handheld devices and utility meters, according to U-blox. Along with A-GPS (Assisted Global Positioning System), it has a hybrid technology called CellLocate that uses cellular signals for a location fix indoors or in other locations where GPS isn't available.

While 4G LTE is what most users are looking for on their smartphones now and 5G is garnering most of the network-technology headlines, 3G and 2G networks are still operating and are fast enough for many consumer and enterprise IoT applications. In the U.S., most 3G networks are expected to stay online at least until the end of this decade.

IDC estimates that there are 1.4 billion non-phone devices connected to cellular networks worldwide and that there will be 8 billion by the end of 2018. Cellular technology has taken on a lot of the tasks that once were handled by proprietary networks, partly because high-volume manufacturing has brought cellular costs well below those of specially built systems. Most of the cellular-connected machines in the field today use 2G or 3G, which are often cheaper than 4G, can work on less energy and are well-suited for carrying small bits of data about speed, transactions, motion or energy consumption.

AT&T is aggressively pursuing the connected-devices business with offerings such as its Digital Life series of systems for connected homes. The carrier formed its Emerging Devices Organization eight years ago and recently named the former head of that group, Glenn Lurie, as CEO of AT&T Mobility.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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