Ring ring, it's your watch calling

On paper, it doesn't make sense for smartwatches to have their own independent connection. But AT&T is working to make sure it's in the mix when it comes to wearables.

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Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
4 min read

Does a smartwatch need its own cellular connection?

The Timex Ironman One GPS+ will include a cellular radio with an AT&T connection. James Martin/CNET

The simple answer is, well, no. Adding a cellular radio to a watch increases the size, drains the battery faster and makes it more expensive. That's why most of the high-tech watches opt for Bluetooth for talking to a nearby smartphone.

AT&T isn't convinced. It sees value in having an independent cellular line built into a wearable device. After all, do you really want to carry your clunky smartphone when you go on a run? And wearable medical devices may require the kind of persistent connection only a cellular network can provide.

For AT&T, this is more than an academic discussion. That's because the company is keen to jump into the burgeoning area of smart wearables, a market that research firm Analysis Mason sees growing to $22.9 billion by 2020. That market represents a new growth opportunity beyond AT&T's core business: providing wireless and home phone and Internet service.

AT&T aims to provide a cellular connection to all manner of devices, whether it's a car, dog collar or system in the home managing the lights, thermostat and security system. The goal is to get consumers to add more devices onto their shared data plans. Adding more devices equals greater demand for data and a higher monthly wireless bill.

AT&T is keen on wearables. And since most wearables connect to a mobile phone, it has to go the extra mile to make sure it's in the mix.

Apple's smartwatch won't have an independent radio, instead relying on an iPhone for its data connection. Apple

"A majority of smartwatches will be tethered to smartphones," Chris Penrose, head of connected devices for AT&T, said in an interview in early January. "But you'll see more and more use cases where having that standalone connectivity gives you freedom."

A select number of wearable devices already sport that AT&T connection. The most high profile is Samsung Electronics' Gear S, its flagship smartwatch. Intel's MICA bracelet, developed in partnership with fashion house Opening Ceremony, has a 3G cellular connection for basic notifications. Later this year, the carrier will sell Timex's Ironman One GPS+ smartwatch with one year of free cellular connectivity.

Not that it's the norm. You won't find cellular connectivity on most Samsung smartwatches, Motorola's Moto 360 or Apple's upcoming Apple Watch.

"Cellular connectivity in any wearable in the short-run is going to make it a niche product," said Kevin Burden, an analyst at 451 Research, noting the drawbacks of watch size, battery life and cost that come with embedding a cellular radio.

Still, AT&T is talking to a host of watch manufacturers about potentially adding connectivity into their products, Penrose said. Some manufacturers are asking about the technology and working on projects internally, while others want the carrier to handle some of the heavy lifting.

"We're playing a variety of roles depending on what these watchmakers want to talk about," he said.

The MICA bracelet is a good example of the partnership between Intel, Opening Ceremony and AT&T, he said.

Technical hurdles

While there are significant concerns when adding a cellular radio to a wearable gadget, that problem will be largely mitigated over time.

"You'll continue to see things get cheaper, smaller, faster and better," Penrose said, adding he expects to see those improvements as soon as this year.

Intel unveiled a button-sized processor to power wearables at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month. Miniscule radios can't be far behind.

Chris Penrose heads up the connected devices business at AT&T. AT&T

Consumers face another issue when their watch has an independent cellular connection: The smartwatch's AT&T account is different from their smartphone number. If you want to receive text message notifications on your connected watch, you'd have to give your friends the device's associated number.

AT&T plans to solve that with a technique called "twinning" where you can apply a single phone number and account to multiple devices. With twinning, a text message that pops up on your smartphone can also appear on your watch or in your car.

AT&T is in the midst of upgrading its network to an Internet-based design, which will enable this feature, said Penrose. He didn't say when it would be available to consumers.

Another approach is a so-called hub-and-spoke model. Here, a person wears one device with a cellular connection, which acts as the hub that talks to other gadgets. The cellular hub would be appropriate when you don't have you smartphone with you.

Still, not everyone is convinced.

"Unless you're a cyborg, you're not going to have all of the wearable devices that replicate the same things a smartphone can do," said Ken Hyers, an analyst at Strategy Analytics. "You're almost always going to have the smartphone with you -- making it the natural 'hub' for the wearable ecoverse."