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22 February 2019

5G thunders into MWC, but IoT only just getting onto LTE

Brace yourselves; MWC is here, and the cacophony of 5G sycophants is going to reach deafening heights. Through the din, you will hunt for IoT-related news, about how the new 5G technologies are going to be put to use, and you will notice that all of the scant attention given to the matter at MWC will concern high bandwidth applications. Unsurprisingly, low-power applications aren’t sexy enough for the booth drapery.

This concern was the backdrop for a conversation with Antenova, a specialist in the dark art of antenna design that decided to go all-in on the IoT a few years ago – something CEO Colin Newman says he’d liked to have pulled the trigger on earlier, in hindsight. Working closely with chipset and module makers, Antenova supplies the expertise needed to craft an antenna that can unlock the claimed ranges and capabilities of the LPWAN technologies, which off-the-shelf antenna just can’t do.

To this end, from Antenova’s perspective, there isn’t really a push or demand for 5G designs in the IoT. Newman says that IoT customers are only now being forced to move to LTE, by operators looking to re-farm 2G and 3G spectrum into more lucrative 4G spectrum. Similarly, these customers don’t need the bandwidth of 4G and 5G, as they are playing an entirely different ballgame than the gigabit crowd.

In these timelines, by the time that 5G is actually a ‘thing,’ found inside your smartphone and maybe powering a Fixed-Wireless Access (FWA) deployment in your neighborhood, the IoT might have finally made it fully onto 4G, and only then begin to wonder how to migrate to 5G networks that the operators will be pushing so enthusiastically.

So while Newman doesn’t think there are going to be 5G IoT customers for two to three years, he does note that the company is already in the R&D process to ensure that when they do turn up, the company has something for their needs. Newman also notes that there are huge distinctions between the sub-6GHz 5G designs and those that are used in the 23GHz bands and higher.

In the past six months, Newman says that there has been a significant increase in interested for the licensed spectrum LPWAN (L-LPWAN) technologies, which are much more preferable to the full-blown LTE specifications, when it comes to power usage and bandwidth. We asked about interest in the U-LPWAN variants, and Newman said that LoRa doesn’t seem to have captured this market, and seems to be running out of time.

He said that LoRa seemed popular in pockets, but that some countries seem to have no interest at all. Antenova fields several L-LPWAN enquiries each day, and perhaps just one per month for LoRa. Of course, it seems likely that buyers looking for the kinds of applications best suited to LoRa, such as high-density deployments where the per-device cost of a SIM-based connection would be prohibitive, are not ideal buyers for the likes of Antenova, but the distinction between customer enquiries is remarkable.

Newman says that the mood in the IoT marketplace is still very good, that the decision to focus solely on the IoT was a good one. He noted that in this market, keeping customers is not such a life-and-death affair as it is in mobile phone designs, where the top-two customers might control 90% of a market. In the IoT, no single customer is more than a few percent of Antenova’s total business, and so things are a little easier.

The bigger challenge, according to Newman, is responding to the flood of enquiries coming in. Most don’t have the required RF expertise, and so are dependent on working closely with Antenova in the process – requiring more support and design tools. Newman did stress that Antenova doesn’t want to become a consultancy firm, but that the market does seem to have changed in this regard.

To this end, the company is working more closely with module suppliers, such as u-blox and Quectel, creating reference designs that make it easier to jointly approach customers that have determined they want an IoT project. It makes the selling process easier for the partners, as the two products can be more easily combined in the customer’s offering.

Similarly, the need for network certification, approval from the MNOs that are going to let these devices join their networks, tends to require a higher-quality product, meaning that the likes of Antenova have this up their sleeve when it comes to staving off low-cost alternatives from the Far East.