Sequans and u-blox look beyond LPWAN for growth

Both Sequans and u-blox have taken a pummeling on the stock market in the past year, and this week, both providers of licensed cellular low power WAN (L-LPWAN) chips have announced products that look beyond that environment. Sequans is targeting the USA’s CBRS shared spectrum band, and u-blox has taken aim at upcoming 5G markets, with a new security-heavy version of its chipset.

It has not surprised us to see the slow uptake of L-LPWAN – mainly the two 4G standards, Cat-NB and Cat-M – on a global scale. China has stormed ahead with Cat-NB (formerly NB-IoT), but Cat-M interest has been slow to turn into scale. On the Unlicensed LPWAN side of things, LoRa still makes a lot of noise, and while enjoying success in project or campus-based environments, still hasn’t been forcibly joined up to create a direct rival to the national and then global MNO model – and all the while, a new crop of satellite startups are threatening to burst onto the scene.

So then, it’s little wonder that makers of L-LPWAN hardware are exploring new avenues. To this end, Sequans’ new LTE modules for the 3.5 GHz CBRS band, and u-blox’s new 5G-ready offering are positioned to address markets that are a few quarters (at least) down the road.

The logic is sound, as those who are hunting for L-LPWAN chips are already bound to know the names of the two companies. Both are looking to snare the next crop of IoT projects, which are looking to make use of new technologies and radio frequency allocations.

For Sequans, the two new modules are the CB610L and the CB4110L, LTE Cat 6 and Cat 4 respectively. Targeted at applications that want to make use of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band, an unlicensed 3.5 GHz allocation in the FCC regulations (making this quite a US-centric launch), Sequans is hoping to snare anyone interested in deploying an LTE project in the spectrum that is beyond the MNOs’ control.

Private LTE such as this has caught the eye of many in the IoT space, mostly because of the unlicensed spectrum opportunity that is usually referred to as LTE-U. There is a distinction between private LTE and LTE-U that needs to be kept in mind, namely that anyone can set up an LTE-U network, but will have to contend with other users in that spectrum while the MNO is able to set up a private LTE network for a customer, using the private spectrum owned by the MNO.

Anyone with a specific area that needs to be connected that does not want or need national or global coverage could make use of these private LTE  or LTE-U deployments, which are also strong candidates for LoRaWAN of course.

However, the U-LPWAN and L-LPWAN confrontation can’t take place in that sales meeting if the application itself needs to make use of more than the bandwidth available in these LPWAN protocols. There can be no such showdown if the customer needs megabytes of data, but that is then an opportunity for a WiFi network. It seems likely that the target for these sales teams is the systems integrator that would be installing either the WiFi or private LTE network for the end customer, as private LTE isn’t exactly an off-the-shelf DIY solution.

Industrial use cases are most typically cited in LTE-U discussions, although smart city and smart building also make a lot of sense for the technology. Sequans says that the modules can support a wide range of medium data rate applications, in the industrial IoT and M2M markets, in end devices, gateways, and even broadband consumer devices. It points to data from Mobile Experts that says there will be a surge in small cell shipments between 2020 and 20203, accounting for 400,000 annual shipments and radio equipment revenue of over $900m, and over 550m handsets, CPE and IoT devices shipped in that period.

“As we near commercial launch, our members are demonstrating the wide scope of CBRS OnGo use cases,” said Alan Ewing, executive director of the CBRS Alliance. “Industrial IoT is proving to be one of the first applications for shared spectrum, and we are seeing a wealth of OnGo-enabled IoT devices coming into the market, enabled by companies like Sequans.”

“We believe our new modules offer the industry’s most highly-optimized cellular connectivity for CBRS network devices,” said Didier Dutronc, Sequans’ CMO. “The LCC packaging is a first, and in addition to the rich set of features, the modules share the same proven software architecture of Sequans’ other LTE modules, thereby ensuring easy integration and fast time to market.”

Sequans competitor u-blox, meanwhile, unveiled its SARA-R5 module, based on its UBX-R5 chipset combined with the M8 GNSS receiver. The new offering is being pitched at LPWAN applications, but u-blox is marketing its “most advanced, secure, and highly integrated cellular product” as being 5G-ready.

Similar to the CBRS pitch, stressing that the device is ready for the next evolution of the 3GPP standards is an attempt to get customers to look beyond the current crop of LPWAN offerings – to start laying the groundwork for an application that will carry on into the 5G world, rather than need to be ripped and replaced at some point in the near future.

This is why u-blox is emphasizing that “with mobile network operators announcing their plans to roll out 5G networks, 5G readiness is becoming a key factor in selecting cellular communication modules. LTE‑M and NB‑IoT are forward‑compatible with 5G networks and, by implementing key LTE‑M and NB‑IoT features from 3GPP Release 14, SARA‑R5 offers customers a smooth transition towards 5G via software upgrades to already deployed devices.”

Essentially, the message is that LTE Cat-M and Cat-NB are no longer the shiny new thing, and should you choose to adopt them, you don’t have to worry about updates. This type of messaging is sensible, and likely to become more common in the L-LPWAN world.

u-blox is providing two versions of the new module, aimed at different applications. The first, the SARA-R511M, is aimed at automotive, tracking, fleet management, and telematics. The second, the SARA-R510M, has been designed with the lowest possible power consumption in mind (less than 1 microampere [1µA] in power save mode, apparently), and is aimed at metering, smart city, healthcare, and security applications – basically, battery-powered devices.

An integration with Kudelski has also been established, to ensure that the modules can provide the security functions needed to assure both enterprises and regulators. “Kudelski and u‑blox are making IoT simple and secure for anyone that adopts SARA‑R5,” said Jean‑Michel Puiatti, SVP IoT Security at Kudelski Group. “By establishing an immutable identity in every module, we lay the foundations for robust protection of the device, data, decisions, commands and actions. This ensures that companies achieve their IoT business objectives and long‑term return on investment with confidence.”