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5 March 2019

IoT is only just getting to LTE, let alone 5G, says Antenova

Amid the 5G din in Barcelona, there was scant attention to the Internet of Things, and the main focus was on high bandwidth applications rather than low power use cases. This was the backdrop for a conversation that Wireless Watch’s sister service, Rethink IoT, had with Antenova, an antenna design firm that decided to go all-in on the IoT a few years ago.

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 low power WAN technologies, which off-the-shelf antennas can’t do.

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

In these timelines, by the time that 5G is actually in mainstream smartphones, the IoT might have finally made it fully to 4G, and only then begin to wonder how to migrate to 5G networks.

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-6 GHz 5G designs and those that are used in the 23 GHz 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 preferable to the full-blown LTE specifications, when it comes to power usage and bandwidth. But as for the Unlicensed technologies, he thinks LoRa has not captured this market, and seems to be a out of time. In his view, LoRa is popular in pockets, but some countries have no interest at all. Antenova fields several L-LPWAN enquiries each day, and perhaps just one per month for LoRa.

Of course, it is 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, and 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.