Altair joins NB-IoT chip race as MNOs defend their M2M turf

Altair has unveiled its ALT1250, its first LTE Cat-M1 and NB-IoT chipset. It comes as the cellular operators start to deploy the network infrastructure needed to support the low-power cellular protocols that were designed to fight off the like of Sigfox, LoRa, and Ingenu and keep low power wide area (LPWA) networks, for services like smart metering, firmly in the hands of the MNOs.

Altair’s co-founder and VP of marketing, Eran Eshed, said the new 1250 sits in a 10mm x 10mm footprint, which includes an integrated GPS receiver, and a wideband RF front end. He says this enables support for any combination of LTE bands – which translates into global support for a single hardware design. The chip is the most significant release since Altair was acquired for $212m by Sony, in January last year.

Eshed said that the chip includes about 90% of what is typically needed to build a module, meaning that adopters need fewer additional components to complete their module designs. He said that Altair did license some of the RISC CPU designs, but that the bulk of the technology in the 1250 comes from Altair and Sony – including the LTE and GPS, as well as the RF front end, memory, security, and power.

Saying that the design makes for much easier adoption, we pushed Eshed for details on pricing. He said that the market expects a Cat 1 module to cost around $15, with Cat-M1 being around $10, and NB-IoT costing $1-$2 dollars less. Those figures tie in with what we’ve heard from other sources in the market, with most saying they expected NB-IoT to creep towards $6 as volumes increased.

However, Eshed said that the cost of the module is an over-rated concern, and that the total cost of ownership (TCO) and quality of life (QoL) are higher priorities for a customer than the module. He noted that so many different parameters come into play that the catalog price isn’t the deciding factor, but did note that carriers want to drive down the cost of the new Cat-M1 and NB-IoT modules down in order to ease migration from 2G – convincing their customers to jump ship so that they can refarm the 2G spectrum.

As for the ALT1250’s launch date, Eshed said that the chip was sampling with customers now and was expected to appear in commercial device launches in the second half of the year – in line with the availability of the Cat-M1 and NB-IoT network services from MNOs, which are slowly upgrading their LTE infrastructure to accommodate the new specs.

The market is heating up for Release 13 chipsets. Huawei’s HiSilicon subsidiary offers an NB-IoT chip that is used by u-blox in its modules, Qualcomm has its MDM9206 chipset for Cat-M1 and NB-IoT, and Intel announced its XMM 7115 modem almost a year ago (though hasn’t emerged in a commercial product).

Sequans launched its Monarch Cat-M1 and NB-IoT chipsets back in February 2016, but Eshed defended Altair’s later move, claiming the company has had time to optimize its chips and now has the best Release 13 chip on the market. While Sequans has had quite a headstart, Altair is banking on winning contracts based on RFP benchmarks and testing, as well as the fact that the wider market is still only just waking up to NB-IoT and Cat-M1.
Sequans’ chipsets are used in modules from Gemalto, and it also has a deal with TSMC to integrate the chipsets into other SoCs, and one with Skyworks. Altair’s chips are used in Telit’s modules, and in previous conversations, Altair has said that u-blox and Gemalto are also customers. Sierra Wireless is the first public customer for the new 1250.

“Altair’s new ALT1250 chipset is a true LPWA solution for IoT,” said Philippe Guillemette, CTO of Sierra Wireless. “As a market leader in IoT, Sierra Wireless is always in pursuit of the best chipset platforms that will enable us to offer highly differentiated products to our customers. We believe the ALT1250 will provide us with that kind of a competitive edge, on top of which we can build our added value and features to meet our customers’ needs.”

Both Sequans and Altair focused on Cat 1 designs, but unlike Sequans, Altair never pursued a Cat 0 chip – dismissing it as an unnecessary stopgap between Cat 1 and the Cat-M. Eshed told us in October 2015 that Cat 0 was a non-starter, and based on the complete lack of interest we can spot in the market, he was right. Sequans did have a Cat 0 version of its Cat 1 Calliope chipset, but doesn’t seem to be pursuing the product with much zeal, thanks to its newer Monarch offerings.

LTE Cat 1 aimed to provide a 10Mbps download, with Cat 0 clocking in at 1Mbps. Cat 1 required two physical antennae in the modules, as do the other higher LTE categories, but because Cat 0 only required a single antenna, it was initially pitched as a way to significantly lower the BOM cost of the devices.

Cat-M1 provides around 300kbps of throughput, and NB-IoT (formerly Cat-M2) has around 40kbps of bandwidth – and were finalized in the 3GPP Release 13 spec, which arrived a few months late because of the desire to get. However, the two LTE-M specs have much lower power requirements than Cat 1 and Cat 0, with NB-IoT aiming to provide the 10-year battery life seen in Sigfox and LoRa devices.