LAS VEGAS--The debate over what is the best low-power wireless communications protocol technology to power millions and eventually billions of Internet of Things devices heated up at Super Mobility this week. LTE chipset Altair Semiconductor argued that LTE Category 1 chipsets can achieve many of the benefits of the more advanced Category 0 chips without the need for device makers to add in new silicon. Meanwhile, even though competitor Sequans Communications was at CTIA's Super Mobility conference touting Cat 0, the company conceded that network software upgrades could bring the benefits of Cat 0 without the need for new chips.
All of this is playing out as silicon vendors and network technology firms clamor over one another for the attention of device makers and IoT solutions providers, as they seek to offer up low-power and low-cost solutions to power connected devices, which do not need the bandwidth of smartphones but require much longer battery life.
Eran Eshed, Altair's co-founder and vice president of marketing and business development, said in an interview with FierceWirelessTech that the company is heavily pushing its Cat 1 solutions, which it is demonstrating here with network vendor Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC). He noted that because Cat 1 solutions support maximum throughput of 10 Mbps, Cat 1-based modules cost around $15 each, and are cheaper than single-mode LTE Cat 4 modules, which support up to 150 Mbps speeds and often sell for around $20 each. Altair also just announced a strategic initiative with Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) to accelerate the development of new LTE-based, commercial IoT products.
Eshed said that when Altair architected its Cat 1 solution, it integrated the power management functions to get more efficiency and tighter control over different device functions. With Cat 0, where downlink speeds are limited to 1 Mbps, there is greater power savings, especially because, as defined in LTE Release 12, Cat 0 supports what is known as Power Save Mode, or PSM. That technology lets a device go to sleep for hours or weeks at a time, and when that timer is up, can connect quickly to the network, be pinged for data, and then go back to sleep. Cat 0 solutions also have one antenna and support half-duplex FDD, where data is either transmitted or received on different frequencies.
Importantly, Eshed said that Altair can implement PSM on its Cat 1 chipsets, and support a single antenna, achieving many of the benefits of Cat 0 without having to do a network upgrade. This week, IoT solutions provider Telit introduced the LE866 module, the first in a new series based on Altair's Cat 1 chipsets. Quanta and USI are other Altair customers.The use cases for such chipsets include modules for smart meters, utilities, telematics, vehicle tracking and usage-based insurance, he added.
Although Altair can support an upgrade to Cat 0, Eshed said Altair is "not a big believer" in the technology, seeing it as a stopgap on the way to Cat M, which he estimated will be in devices in the market by the end of 2017 after LTE Release 13 is finalized. Cat M supports much greater power efficiency gains and limits throughput speeds to just 375 Kbps.
Sequans, meanwhile, is showing off Release 12 Cat 0 capabilities via software modifications to its Calliope CAT 1 chip, but is developing Cat 0 and Cat M platforms that will be fully optimized in both software and hardware.
Craig Miller, Sequans' vice president of marketing, told FierceWirelessTech, that Release 12 features like PSM and half-duplex operations do require a network software upgrade. He said it was not a question of whether Cat 0 is a stopgap but whether carriers want to upgrade their networks to Release 12.
Yet Miller also noted that "you can get a lot of these benefits without a new chipset, you just need the software in the network and on the existing device."
Sequans is "certainly pushing Cat 1 hard," Miller said, since those chipsets are certified and deployed in devices now. Encore Networks, a leading manufacturer of wireline, cellular, and satellite VPN routers, teamed with Sequans on a Cat 1 solution that Verizon has certified, Miller noted. Sequans has also been working with T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) for several months on a now-successful LTE Cat 1 network trial.
"We're going to see if Cat 0 emerges as a real, broad-scale deployment by many, many operators," Miller said. "Then we'll optimize the silicon."
Chris Penrose, AT&T's (NYSE: T) senior vice president of IoT solutions, said the carrier is actively pushing chipset partners on both Cat 1 and Cat 0 solutions, and which one works best for device makers will depend entirely on the use case -- including how much data is sent from the device and what the required throughput is for the application. Yet the goal is to keep making LTE modules cheaper, he said, which would likely lead to more LTE devices being connected to AT&T's network. "Price points on those modules need to be down sub-$5," he said.
Eshed said that proprietary IoT connectivity technologies, like Inegnu's Random Phase Multiple Access (RPMA) technology, which uses unlicensed 2.4 GHz, were doomed to be niche because they are not supported by a broader global ecosystem. He noted that every major network vendor supports LTE and that Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM), Intel, MediaTek and other chipset vendors working on Cat M solutions "make our life more difficult" but also show "there is a very robust ecosystem" for LTE solutions for IoT.
Yet Penrose said AT&T is actually looking into Ingenu's technology. He said he was "not in a position to say where we see it fits" and that AT&T is still assessing RMPA. He noted that Ingenu needs to deploy its network first.
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