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30 June 2017

MediaTek, China Mobile, launch NB-IoT module, challenges Huawei

By Jack Vernon

MediaTek has unveiled its first NB-IoT System-on-Chip (SoC), the MT2625, and announced a collaboration with China Mobile to build the world’s smallest NB-IoT module. Aligning with the world’s largest MNO, by customer base at least, will give MediaTek the opportunity to score big in the nascent LPWAN market.

In the announcement, MediaTek corporate VP and GM, Jerry Yu, pointed to the huge opportunity coming in China for NB-IoT. We’re largely in agreement with Yu that China will be a huge area of growth for NB-IoT, thanks to Huawei’s dominant position in the MNO infrastructure market – and Huawei’s support for the low-power protocol.

The GSMA recently published a list of partners around the NB-IoT ecosystem – the most prominent of which, in terms of a sales footprint in China, are utility facing metering vendors like Kamstrup, Sanchuan, Waison, GoldCard and Veolia.

From previous conversations with a mixture of vendors surrounding the topic, we understand that utilities have been waiting for a reliable mode of connectivity for Chinese smart metering for some time now, and the MNO’s are now responding by offering NB-IoT in China.

The upcoming MediaTek NB-IoT module integrates with China mobile’s eSIM tech and supports OneNET, China Mobile’s IoT PaaS, providing a number of options for NB-IoT developers. Aligning the module with China Mobile is a smart move from MediaTek, thanks to its huge customer base.

In 2016, China Mobile had a total of 849m customers out of which 535m were 4G customers. China Mobile built the world’s largest 4G network with 1.44m 4G base stations, accounting for 34% of the global total – demonstrating the strong penetration of 4G in China and the large existing network infrastructure that China Mobile will be able to leverage for its NB-IoT customers.

The announcement will turn the heads of other chip companies. Before this announcement from MediaTek, u-blox was the only company offering a single-protocol NB-IoT module – although Altair and Sequans both offer NB-IoT in dual-mode chips. Currently, Riot is aware of only one ‘optimized’ NB-IoT chipset available on the market, produced by HiSilicon, which features in the u-blox module.

Elsewhere in NB-IoT silicon news, Sanechips (previously known as ZTE Microelectronics) announced that it will be competing with HiSillicon for market share on NB-IoT optimized chipsets, as of September 2017 when it launches the RoseFinch7100 chipset. Sanechips’ RoseFinch will differs from the HiSillicon Boudica NB-IoT chipset, in that it licenses the CEVA X1 IoT chip design. Also, the RoseFinch7100 will offer more of the stack pre-packaged for developers, whereas the Boudica is simply a RF chip node.

Riot expects an optimized NB-IoT chipset launch from Qualcomm, upgrading from its MDM9206 to a chipset better optimized for licensed LPWAN. When Riot has spoken to Qualcomm in the past, about new IoT chipsets, it has remained secretive and not passed comment. However, Riot expects Qualcomm to announce the product by Q4 2017.

MediaTek is yet to confirm whose chipsets it is using in the module – and we’ll update once we receive an official response. We also expect MediaTek to match the price of the u-blox module, at around the $9.50 mark.

Returning to other vendors, both Altair and Sequans have NB-IoT silicon, but both are reprogrammable between LTE-M and NB-IoT – and not purely single-mode. This means that the price of these products is higher – but developers purchasing a dual-protocol chip have a greater degree of flexibility when it comes to their designs.

Speculation will continue to mount around module vendors like Telit, which has already declared an interest in the LPWAN market by launching modules for other protocols – such as Sigfox and LoRa. The speculation surrounds when exactly they will also be entering the market with a single protocol NB-IoT module, bringing them into direct competition with u-blox and MediaTek.

MNOs have recently touted a $5 module price for NB-IoT, however, we know through conversations with module vendors that this price level is not a market reality. A second generation of chipsets and modules are due in 2018, and at volume these modules should cost closer to the $7 mark. Once a second generation of NB-IoT chipsets are certified and on the market, the pricing picture will become clearer – perhaps eventually towards $5 at sufficient scale

Smart Water and Gas meter penetration is currently low in China, meaning there is still a massive opportunity to connect end devices in this area – as electrical AMI is much more established. There is also a wider opportunity in utility network telematics, as part of efficiency drives. For instance, according to Homerider, the UK loses 3 million m³ of water each day – and LPWAN technologies are well-placed to help counter such leaks.

Rough figures suggest that this is around a £5.7m wastage each day, in terms of lost revenue opportunities. Consequently, better identifying leaks to reduce this loss can provide a clear ROI for the smart metering that helps the utility find and stop the leaks. In addition, replacing old and damaged pipes is around 50% total capex spending for a water utility.

Smart meters and connected sensors in other parts of the network give the utility the capability to identify damaged pipes in their network. This allows the water company to better plan the replacement of these pipes and respond faster to leaks, allowing the company to reduce the cost of wasting water and better plan their activity.

To find out more about why there is so much chip vendor activity around NB-IoT and LPWAN in general, take a look at our LPWAN market forecast – essential for any reader looking to understand the key trends in the LPWAN market.