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Qualcomm’s new 9205 chipset aims to secure LPWAN foothold

As 2018 wound to a close, Qualcomm unveiled the MDM9205, a modem chipset centered around an ARM Cortex A7 processor, which supports LTE Cat-M1, Cat-NB2, and 2G/E-GPRS. With satellite support too, and Qualcomm’s Trusted Execution Environment, this looks like a pretty sophisticated bit of kit. However, this market is still in a race to the bottom, and Qualcomm is not known for being the cheapest.

The low-power LTE variants provide noticeably more bandwidth than their U-LPWAN counterparts, LoRa and Sigfox. Because of this, the MDM9205 will be targeted at higher value applications, such as wearables, asset tracking, and (relatively) high bandwidth environmental sensing, where the higher power draw is tolerated in exchange for the improved throughput.

The new chipset is 50% smaller and 70% more power efficient when idle than its predecessor, the MDM9206, with the older reference module measuring 21.8mm by 19,2mm, and the new one measuring 14.7mm by 15.3mm. We aren’t sure why Qualcomm’s product series numbering is moving in the reverse of its Snapdragon line, but it’s something to remain aware of.

Qualcomm is also claiming a ‘commercial first’ for L-LPWAN, by integrating a 450MHz to 2.1GHz RF transceiver into the front-end – enough to cover 23 LTE bands, and give a good amount of credibility to the positioning of the chipset as a global product. For most global businesses, having a single product design that can be used across its entire footprint is valuable, and if Qualcomm’s claim is true, then it avoids a logistics firm needing to worry about the North American version of its package tracker not working in Europe.

Qualcomm says that the new chipset should provide more cost-effective options for customers. The application processor should remove the need for a separate microcontroller, allowing software to run on the modem chipset itself. The first modules based on the 9205 are expected to appear in early 2019, with Qualcomm pointing to Gemalto, Quectel, and Telit, in the announcement.

Perhaps telling of China’s current market dominance, Qualcomm highlights that the 9205 supports Ali Things OS, the real-time operating system that Alibaba is pushing as an IoT platform. The associated SDK provides support form Alibaba Cloud Link One, China Mobile’s OneNet, and also Verizon’s ThingSpace and Ericsson’s IoT Accelerator. Besides Ali Things OS, developers can also use ThreadX, a popular real-time operating system, developed by Express Logic.

Qualcomm’s MDM9207-1 modem provided LTE Cat 1, with the MDM9206 providing LTE Cat-M1 and Cat-NB1. The MDM 9205 has added the Release 14 version of NB-IoT, Cat-NB2, but not the equivalent version of Cat-M. The MDM9205 also has a distinctly slower application processor, in terms of its clock-speed, than the two predecessors. The MDM9207 also provided WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities, whereas the two others are focused on just L-LPWAN and the satellite location features.

Qualcomm stresses that the new chipset is compatible with the software and SDK used in the MDM9206, which should mean customers can easily update their designs to use the newer chip. Keeping the upgrade path streamlined is important for customers that are planning multi-decade business models.

“The innovations included in the Qualcomm 9205 LTE modem are critical to support many of the 6bn IoT devices expected to use low-power, wide-area connectivity by 2026,” said Vieri Vanghi, VP Product Management at Qualcomm Europe. “LTE IoT technologies are the foundation of how 5G will help connect the massive IoT, and we are making these technologies available to customers worldwide to help them build innovative solutions that can help transform industries and improve people’s lives.”

Elsewhere in the low-power wireless industry, u-blox has just announced that it is filing a lawsuit against InterDigital, a venerable licensing house that holds a lot of patents in the cellular world. u-blox says is has no choice but to file, seeking FRAND terms for some of InterDigital’s patents, but it is also seeking a Temporary Restraining Order and preliminary injunction against the firm, to avoid disrupting existing business relationships. InterDigital has made no public comment yet.

Our Riot 50 tracker shows how difficult a year the wireless hardware industry is having. Since May, Sequans is down 55%, Sierra Wireless is down 26%, Skyworks is down 32%, Telit is down 15%, and u-blox is down some 59%. We track Qualcomm inside the Semiconductors segment, where it is something of an oddity, as the firm to have grown in the period – although that is due to its struggles amid the Broadcom takeover attempt and the Apple IP dispute. The technology industry as a whole has had a bad year in the stock markets, but those in the wireless chip design business have been hit particularly hard. But hey, at least they’re not doing as poorly as GE.

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