Sequans adds NB-IoT support, hard on Altair’s heels

Sequans has launched the Monarch SX, a system-on-chip (SoC) aimed at customers looking for LTE Cat-M1 and NB-IoT connectivity. Integrating its Monarch platform with an ARM processor, the Sequans announcement comes after last week’s unveiling of a new NB-IoT chip from rival Altair – as the low-power cellular industry heats up ahead of MWC.

The new SoC aims to streamline decisions for IoT developers that are looking for a cellular option, by providing an SoC that provides the processing power required to run applications, as well as the necessary cellular RF processing and sensor options. In a 90mm2 package, Sequans is pitching this at small IoT devices, with wearables, asset trackers, and sensor nodes identified as ideal candidates. Orion Labs has already announced that it is using the new SoC for a wearable.

We spoke with Sequans’ CEO Georges Karam, who said that the key technology is still the modem chipset. Combined with that ARM Cortex-M4 processor, as well as the necessary sensor hub, DSP, video-processing media engine, and GPU silicon too (from Think Silicon), Sequans is pitching the Monarch SX SoC as an entire solution – with an application like a wearable only needing to add the desired WiFi, Bluetooth, or GPS chips.

As for the current regional differences in support for the Rel. 13 specs, with the US favoring Cat-M1 and Europe seeing more NB-IoT penetration, Karam explained that because both Nokia and Ericsson were supporting Cat-M1, their market dominance led to AT&T and Verizon essentially favoring the offerings of their network infrastructure providers.

Huawei leans more towards NB-IoT, and its HiSilicon subsidiary’s offerings reflect that, and because Huawei hasn’t had much success in North America, NB-IoT isn’t as prevalent – broadly speaking. In terms of time-frames, Sequans expects nationwide US Cat-M1 availability within a few months – expanding from today’s pilots.  For NB-IoT, Sequans thinks its installation curve is around six months behind, and that some European networks could be live by the end of the year.

Karam said that Cat-M1 is perhaps the more short-term solution, as the standard can serve the same low-power pure-messaging applications as NB-IoT, but also provide the richer data and voice services that might be required by developers. NB-IoT’s advantages will arise from the cheaper device costs, but the spec is limited to those pure-messaging applications. Karam noted that their power consumption stats are quite similar.

We’ve still not heard back from Intel’s PR team regarding its XMM 7115 modem. Intel launched its 5G modem back in CES, and is singing its praises ahead of MWC, as well as unveiling the XMM 7560 for LTE-A. Karam said he had heard rumors that Intel might skip Cat-M1 entirely and opt for a pure NB-IoT chip. The 7115 was pitched at launch as an NB-IoT solution, but Intel was also talking about its 7315 that supported Cat-M1 too.
Intel also partnered with AT&T to launched the LTE IoT Quick Deployment (LIQD) program, to provide ready-to-deploy devices for OEMs and carriers, with the first launch device being Sonim’s XPi, which is powered by a Sierra Wireless HL module that uses an Intel Quark SE CE1000 MCU.

As for Qualcomm, ZTE has just announced that it is launching a smart parking platform using NB-IoT chips from its Welink subsidiary. Welink uses Qualcomm modems in many of its designs, and we are waiting on confirmation from ZTE.

The conversation moved towards the unlicensed LPWAN offerings from the likes of Sigfox, LoRa, and Ingenu. Karam said he though they had done a great job in moving the cellular industry forwards, as the carriers felt attacked by their advances, but still thinks that the two approaches have enough application-use differences to make direct comparisons misleading.

He noted that it was obvious that cellular LTE-M approaches were going to be more expensive than unlicensed LPWAN, but that the requirements of each application will decide whether that’s a price worth paying – for higher QoS guarantees and (theoretically) better network latency.

Karam added that the carriers are now very aware that they have to think outside the box, when it comes to these new IoT devices and applications. Approaches like using one-time network connection fees per device, or using a smartphone bill as the central point for a consumer’s smart home devices are possible candidates, in Karam’s eyes – giving the example of a suitcase with integrated tracking, which would require a one-time activation.

The Sequans CEO believes that if the carriers can navigate the shift into the IoT, then the cellular approaches will win – but that they risk fragmentation if they fail. As for 5G, Karam thinks the industry vision is a 10-20 year process, and that the IoT component in 5G is going to be evolutionary, rather than the revolutionary impact it is going to have before the arrival of 5G-proper.