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18 December 2015

Semtech announces STMicro LoRa licensing deal, Microchip launches $11 module

Semtech has announced that STMicroelectronics has licensed the LoRa IP and will begin building LoRa SoCs based on its 32-bit microcontrollers (MCUs). STMicro will also be joining the LoRa Alliance, and says it will be targeting MNOs and large-scale private network deployments, by releasing reference designs.

STMicro joins Microchip as licensees of LoRa, with Semtech the only current source of the LoRa chips, with Microchip due to start shipping within the next two quarters – see additional details below. While Semtech and Microchip are focusing on producing the radio modules, STMicro looks to be set on developing an integrated SoC – which could make way for smaller and more power efficient designs down the road.

The reference designs will be used by STMicro to generate interest in its SoCs, drumming up customers for the silicon. It’s not clear from the outside whether this is the first of many upcoming licensing deals, or whether Semtech wanted to secure a technology partner that could develop SoCs for LPWAN devices.

While Microchip’s RN2483 (433MHz and 868MHz) and RN2903 (915MHz) would be managing the LoRa communications itself, the module would be paired with an application processor to handle the running of the device itself. The STMicro announcement implies that the company will begin developing a SoC that combines the radio module with the application processor – suitable for devices with less stringent power requirements, or more intensive compute requirements.

At some point in the near-ish future, the Semtech royalty may well become the largest individual cost of the total price of a LoRa chip – although that could be some way off, given that Microchip is currently charging nearly $11 for the RN2483. Semtech will be aware of this pressure, and will likely try to mitigate this by scaling the royalty down according to the volume of shipments.

But if the company were to remain steadfast, there’s a feasible outcome in which LoRa chips become perceived as unduly expensive, as other LPWAN silicon gets increasingly cheaper (due to the familiar economies of scale) while the LoRa prices stay high due to that royalty.

Currently, Semtech takes a different approach to the other LPWAN implementations. While the upper levels of the stack are open standards, the PHY-layer incurs a royalty per device – meaning that Semtech generates revenue from those Microchip and STMicro sales.

Of course, Semtech is reluctant to reduce this royalty, as it is the only way that the company monetizes the LoRa IP – as it isn’t involved (currently) in the upper layer software and services that other companies are buying and selling. It could see increasing pressure from the non-profit LoRa Alliance, which would want to see the barrier to entry lowered via cheaper hardware – but of course, Semtech itself won’t be as open to this as the LoRa line members.

Sigfox meanwhile has decided to release its software stack to silicon vendors on a royalty-free basis, meaning that it has as many potential sources of silicon as it can convince to flash the stack onto their chips. With more than half a dozen current options for hardware, Sigfox enjoys competition in the PHY-layer, but of course maintains complete control over the upper layers of the process – with the per-device network connection cost heading straight to Sigfox.

Weightless has opted for a completely open standard implementation, which means that anyone can jump in and source their own chips and networking gear – but the standards themselves (there are three versions) need to gain market traction in order for vendors to decide to establish dedicated Weightless silicon divisions.

In another boat are the smaller LPWAN vendors, like Link Labs and Ingenu, will sell their own hardware to their customers – with Link Labs recently announcing a European distribution deal with Low Power Radio Solutions, and Ingenu selling a proprietary ASIC to its customers (and apparently looking into third-party solutions).

When the 3GPP-backed NB-IoT LPWAN implementation arrives, it will likely attract a fairly familiar list of hardware vendors, as will the LTE-M technology – with Altair and Sequans likely to keep ahead of the pack given their involvement in Cat 1 and Cat 0 currently.

“The combination of our large family of industry-leading STM32 microcontrollers, together with the LoRa technology through our partnership with Semtech, will further strengthen our position on the IoT, Smart City, and Industrial markets, where our portfolio of controllers, sensors, connectivity, security, analog, and power solutions already make ST formidable,” said Claude Dardanne, EVP and GM of the Microcontroller, Memory & Secure MCU Group, STMicroelectronics. “By contributing our IP and SoC design expertise, we anticipate promoting the deployment of more LPWANs worldwide, and enabling many applications with a standardized ecosystem of service providers and solutions developers.”

Microchip’s RN2483 gets Golden-Unit LoRa certification:

Meanwhile, Microchip’s RN2483 has become the first module to pass the LoRa Alliance’s certification program, tested by the independent Espotel’s labs and found to be fully compliant with LoRaWAN 1.0.

Espotel has said that it will use the RN2483 as the yardstick by which it will measure all other LoRaWAN certification hopefuls, awarding it the Golden-Unit Reference Module status. “Espotel will also use Microchip’s RN2483 module as a benchmark product when further developing the LoRaWAN certification, interoperability and performance testing in our test and research laboratory,” said the company’s Jouko Nikula.

As for the RN2483, Microchip has announced that the module is now available for volume production, at a price of $10.90 per unit in 1,000 unit quantities. Sample devices for developers are available, and Microchip is also offering its RN2483 LoRa PICtail Plus Daughter Board for $65, as well as the RN2483 868MHz LoRa Technology Mote for $70.

That per-unit cost is still too high for the kind of utopian IoT vision of a mass of distributed environmental sensors that capture and backhaul valuable data to a cloud platform for analysis. But many applications exist that can swallow the $11 cost, which will also have to include the other device hardware and all the associated costs for services higher up the chain. For installations where a $50 device installation might save $100 per year, the business case for modules of this expense makes a very convincing argument.

“The launch of an accredited certification program is a key step toward the LoRa Alliance’s mission to standardize an open specification for secure, carrier-grade, low-power wide area networks (LPWAN). We are proud to be the first and only company to have a module certified to the LoRaWAN 1.0 specification,” said Steve Caldwell, VP of Microchip’s Wireless Product Division, and also the chair of the LoRa Alliance’s Strategic Committee.