Now part of the Thales Group, Gemalto is still plugging away at the IoT market, selling wireless modules and supporting security software to manufacturers looking to create connected devices. With a growing services wing, the company is looking to solve as many deployment roadblocks pre-emptively, to get the IoT ball rolling. A new partnership with Eseye hopes to help here, and we spoke to Neil Bosworth, UK Country Sales Manager, for a perspective on the current state of the LPWAN market.
Bosworth said that Gemalto was now quite used to its new position inside Thales, after the French firm paid $5.43bn (€4.8bn) for Gemalto back in 2018. Thales is still using the Gemalto brand to go to market, and wants to incorporate Gemalto’s IoT-focused offerings into its wider digitalization offerings.
At this point, Bosworth mentioned that the past six months had seen Gemalto focusing on the newer technologies in the cellular IoT space, including the Machine-Type Communication (MTC) offerings from the 3GPP. We asked if this meant Gemalto was providing LTE Cat-M2 and Cat-NB2 products and services to its customers. Bosworth answered that this was not the case.
The lack of a global deployment was cited as the main barrier, with Bosworth saying that the demand is out there but it is still very fragmented – pointing to the UK as a notable example. Here, Bosworth said, you need complete national coverage to make sales, and that the lack of MNO coverage compounds this problem.
To this end, companies like Gemalto are still effectively relying on the old 2G networks, to ensure that there are no gaps in coverage, and Bosworth said that it was only in Australia, Japan, and the USA that you could manage on just Cat-M. He noted that Europe is still very much split in terms of Cat-M and Cat-NB strategic decisions and coverage.
Bosworth also pointed to the problems facing the chipset developers, whose products Gemalto uses in its modules. With 2G, there was a global appeal, as a single design could be easily adapted to work in every territory. With all the variation in LTE bands, the complexity of the baseband and RF components needed in the chipsets and modules increases, which makes a truly global LTE module a lot more expensive than the older 2G counterparts.
Compounding this was that customers have gotten used to the features of 2G, with easy roaming and mobility practically a given for these ‘legacy’ 2G devices. Roaming in both Cat-M and Cat-NB is very tricky, as there are significant gaps in the deployment progress of MNO roadmaps, and for Cat-NB, the cell-handoff is not suitable for mobile things, in Bosworth’s view. The battle between Cat-M and Cat-NB will not be a VHS-Betamax scenario, stressed Bosworth.
We asked if this was disappointing progress, to which Bosworth replied that the whole market wishes that the newer technologies had matured a lot quicker than they have. Having to support around 60 different LTE bands, with no sign of imminent unification on that front, means that the capabilities of the chipsets and modules become more important. Sure, Bosworth notes, a software-defined radio (SDR) solves that problem, but that is a complex (but scalable) solution to a problem that was created by the MNOs collectively rushing ahead without giving much, if any, thought to how to support the IoT.
It was at this point that the conversation turned towards U-LPWAN alternatives, as the L-LPWAN options seemed so troubled. Bosworth said that Gemalto doesn’t hear as much about Sigfox and LoRa as it did a couple of years ago, but did concede that this might be because he is looking in the wrong places.
Bosworth noted that there are many applications that are not going to be compatible with L-LPWAN, such as soap dispenser monitoring, but stressed that if a customer wants QoS and SLA guarantees, because their application is that important, then these customers would be best served by the L-LPWAN options.
But there’s something of a vicious circle here. Bosworth said that the slow take-up of L-LPWAN has been frustrating for many, with most European MNOs promising 2G coverage until 2025 – with many smart meter deployments running on what was already an outdated technology at the time of deployment.
Bosworth pointed to the geographic splits between Cat-M in the US and Cat-NB in the rest of the world. With hundreds of thousands of Cat-M devices, Bosworth said that the US launch has been successful. He added that those MNOs with large LTE investments were more likely to go straight to Cat-M, while those that had not were more focused on Cat-NB. Now, Bosworth says, MNOs see that they need to launch both.
LTE Cat-1 is the unsung hero of the IoT, according to Bosworth, who said it was a fantastic technology available in nearly every single country. Because it is essentially a throttled version of LTE Cat 3, it can leverage the extensive network testing that the likes of Apple and Samsung undertook, as they tried to launch new smartphones using Cat 3. On this point, Bosworth noted that Cat-M and Cat-NB were the first cellular launches in which the mobile phone manufacturers were not involved at all.
But Cat-M and Cat-NB offer significant improvements over Cat 1, thanks to the support for Power Saving Mode (PSM) and Extended Discontinuous Reception (eDRX). In terms of the sales pitch, customers looking at Cat 1 are happy to wait for Cat-M or Cat-NB coverage, as it unlocks price points and battery lives that are simply not possible in Cat 1 – 10 years on a standard D-Cell battery.
As for Gemalto’s modules and services, a new suite of pre-integrated modules have been developed, to simplify IoT adoption. Bosworth said that deploying an IoT app is horrendously complex, and that the connectivity piece is a very small part – with tariff plans, transport mechanisms, cloud vendors, scalability, security, and device management all needing to be solved higher up the stack.
To that end, a new partnership with Eseye promises plug-and-play connectivity and attachment to AWS IoT Core. In theory, this means that a device can be shipped, taken out of the box, fired up, and then connect seamlessly to the AWS platform – powering the relevant business application. This ‘zero-touch’ connectivity is being sold on its ease of use, with preinstalled firmware handling security credentials between the cloud and the end-device, as well as supporting SDKs and an on-device MQTT client to make building applications easier.
Bosworth said that from a customer perspective, they get a module, a SIM, and then their AWS package, at which point they simply purchase MQTT messages from the Amazon Marketplace. All the background processes that tie the whole proposition together are hidden.
Rounding off our discussion, Bosworth noted that the upcoming eUICC products promise to simplify things even further. While eSIM is simply an embedded chip replacing the functionality of the old SIM card form factor, the technology’s evolution into being integrated inside the chipsets themselves could open up a revolutionary set of new capabilities. However, Bosworth warned that convincing MNOs to move away from the trusted SIM and accept that a baseband chipset is secure enough to replace the SIM is going to be a long process.