Huawei and Gemalto plan joint NB-IoT module in crowded market

Gemalto and Huawei are collaborating to develop new range of NB-IoT modules, focusing on improving security and power consumption. A criticism often leveled at NB-IoT is that the current crop of modules do not fulfill the low power requirements of the industry, in comparison to other LPWAN technologies. The pair hope to rectify that, but face stiff competition.

The announcement outlines how the collaboration will focus on developing modules that have 10-year battery life, implying that existing NB-IoT modules are yet to hit that benchmark. Huawei’s chip division, HiSilicon, has previously partnered with u-blox to produce a dedicated NB-IoT module, and it’s not clear if Huawei is pursuing a multi-vendor strategy, or planning on moving away from u-blox.

Gemalto hasn’t mentioned a price or release date for the new NB-IoT module. As Release 14 of the 3GPP’s LTE standard has been finalized this year, a range of additional features such as multicasting, improved mobility, a greater range of data rates, and lower power support have been added to the NB-IoT standard – meaning any new NB-IoT module should include those improvements.

Gemalto is an established player in embedded mobile hardware and software, but has been diversifying in recent years. In the company’s 2016 annual report, it outlined its strategy in the IoT, saying it would leverage its expertise in ‘secure hardware and software targeting specific IoT verticals.’ Gemalto grew its revenue in IoT by 11% to $354m in 2016, and clearly believes in the long-term performance of the sector, backed up by 2017 product launches.

Given that NB-IoT is a cellular RF technology, it is by no means a large step away from the company’s comfort ground. The group also launched a LTE-M module, the Cinterion EMS31, another cellular backed protocol that can handle larger amounts of bandwidth than NB-IoT, and includes features such as roaming, but doesn’t have the same low power consumption.

When discussing LTE-M with industry contacts, they have described the development of LTE-M (Cat-M1) as an attempt to emulate 2G-type connectivity in LTE – and only later was the decision made to market the protocol as an LPWAN option.

ZTE’s Sanechips recently announced that it would be launching a new NB-IoT optimized chipset, the RoseFinch7100 – a chipset that apparently comes more pre-configured for developers than HiSilicon’s Boudica NB-IoT offering, which is a simpler modem RF front-end.

Qualcomm’s MDM9206 modem can be reprogrammed to enable both NB-IoT and LTE-M connectivity, and although this means the chip is not as well optimized to meet the low power requirements of the LPWAN market use cases, it does give developers an increased range of options relative to network deployments.

The last significant launch of an NB-IoT module came from MediaTek, in partnership with China Mobile, the country’s largest MNO. MediaTek in its marketing for the MT2625 NB-IoT module also claimed that the module delivered on the low power consumption and long battery life industrial customers so demand.

Riot has previously spoken with director of business strategy and product planning at MediaTek, Siegfried Chang, who described that its NB-IoT product offering would support a deployment of 20m smart meters with one of China Mobile’s customers.

At the time, Chang claimed it was price competitive with the u-blox module, which Riot believes to cost around $9.50. However, the marketing for MT2625 says the module includes the additional features made possible by 3GPP Release 14, whereas the u-blox module came out well before – in the Release 13 window. It will be interesting to see if Gemalto can get its price any lower than that benchmark – if those prices ever become public.

With more vendors entering the market for NB-IoT, and a second generation of modules and chipsets now booked, price competition should be improved for connectivity modules in the market. This is a critical factor in terms of encouraging uptake of the 3GPP protocol, especially given the cheaper modules already available in the Sigfox and LoRa ecosystem – as Sigfox announced a $2 module, earlier this year.

Chang also described how MediaTek, in future NB-IoT modules iterations, would add Bluetooth and GSM to increase the number of applications the module would be suitable for, and give developers more options in connecting to other devices with Bluetooth, or redundant connectivity and backhaul with GSM.

Multi-protocol modules are already widespread in the LPWAN market. Both Altair and Sequans have NB-IoT silicon, but both are reprogrammable between LTE-M and NB-IoT – and not purely single-mode. Given the currently regionalized playing field in terms of LPWAN network deployments, bringing modules to market that will enable connectivity in multiple regions with different operators will be popular with vendors looking to produce cellular products that can be sold into a range of global markets.

In terms of network deployments of NB-IoT, 2017 has been an interesting year. The big three Chinese operators have rolled out networks, along with limited European operator deployments from Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone. Interestingly the latter of the two delayed deployments of NB-IoT in Ireland and the Netherlands, saying that customers in those markets were not yet “ready” for NB-IoT services. It certainly appears that the European operator deployments are less aggressive than those in China.