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6 December 2022

Sony pitches dual-band cellular chipset into IoT ring

Competition is intensifying in the field of hybrid wireless low power WAN chipsets, as demand for multiple IoT wireless protocols and for reduced electricity consumption grows.

Sony Semiconductor Israel, the Sony subsidiary formerly known as Altair Semiconductor, is latest to weigh in with a dual-band low-power cellular IoT chipset combining both the cellular LPWAN variants, LTE-M and NB-IoT, in a single integrated modem.

This new ALT1350 chipset also supports satellite connectivity, standard cellular, GNSS, and WiFi positioning, along with an additional transceiver for IEEE 802.15.4-based protocols in sub-GHz and 2.4 GHz ISM bands. IEEE 802.15.4 specifies operation of a low-rate wireless personal area network (LR-WPAN), for use indoors at far shorter range than LPWAN, and being the basis of several established protocols such as Zigbee, MiWi, 6LoWPAN and Thread.

The chipset therefore covers a lot of bases and has been designed to meet growing demand for modules that can be deployed in different locations and for a variety of use cases. In some cases, a given module will require access to several of the protocols in situ where it is deployed but will also allow enterprises to standardize on a single design for multiple environments and applications in different locations.

Other vendors are coming in, with Sony being incorrect to describe the combination of LTE-M and NB-IoT as a world first. There is at least one other such solution, the TPM540 from Taiwan’s Sercomm, which develops networking software and firmware and also has labs in China and The Philippines. This is a multiband dual-mode LTE-M/NB-IoT module, also designed for very low power consumption and applications where small size is important, coming in a package measuring 13.4 × 14.6 × 1.85 millimeters. This likewise has embedded GNSS for positioning and uses surface-mounted technology for durability.

Sony’s ALT1350 chipset does stand out, though, for incorporating integrated SIM (iSIM) technology, so that the SIM functionality is fully incorporated into the system-on-chip, along with support for the wireless protocols. Many other IoT modules currently support embedded SIM (eSIM) where the SIM functionality is integral but still occupies a separate physical slot in the device. Sercomm’s TPM540 is capable of adopting iSIM but that has not yet done that commercially.

Both devices are aimed at the same use cases, where accurate location and power efficiency are paramount, including smart metering, bike sharing, smart wearables, smart parking, smart city, security and asset tracking to home appliances, along with agricultural and environmental monitoring. Sony has made a strong play on the power front in the belief this is critical for many of these use cases, whether wearables in the consumer arena, or environmental monitors. The company claims to have made substantial savings both in standby and operational mode, claiming a reduction of 80% overall compared with current generation cellular IoT devices.

There is always scope for energy saving by trimming delivery of power more closely to the activities requiring it, reducing dissipation as heat during idle times. Sony argues this can be done in active mode when sending short messages by allowing for the reduced duration of transmission. It also claims to have reduced power consumed when LTE and GNSS positioning are running concurrently, so that the total is less than each would require on its own, presumably by overlapping the circuit designs for the two operations in some way.

The device is currently being tested with commercial launch scheduled for some time in 2023. “The market demand for this multiprotocol, ultra-low power IoT chipset is intensifying, and Sony’s ALT1350 chipset meets that demand,” said Nohik Semel, CEO at Sony Semiconductor Israel. “This is the game-changer we’ve been waiting for, which will enable IoT deployments, utilizing universal connectivity on edge processing and multiple location technologies.”

Support for multiple LPWAN and other wireless protocols is definitely growing. There are five leading LPWAN protocols – the two cellular variants just discussed, plus LoRaWAN, Sigfox and Wi-Sun. Of these, LTE-M stands out as most complementary to the others by supporting significantly higher bit-rates, leading to the demand for the NB-IoT/LTE-M duo.

But other combinations of protocols are also being incorporated in hybrid IoT chipsets, one coming from Canadian consumer electronics firm CWD, with a dual combo module incorporating Semtech’s LoRa Connect platform with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), pitched at smart meters where LoRa has already been deployed. LoRa, operating in the 150 MHz to 960 MHz bands, is used for communication between meters and the utility’s gateways, while BLE will facilitate local connectivity around the premise.

Another use case is tracking people in campuses or closed working environments, particularly for health and safety. The chip has been integrated into ATEX-certified smart ID cards currently deployed in hazardous work environments such as oil rigs, mines and construction sites, to help ensure employee safety. ATEX is the collective name for two EU directives describing minimum safety requirements for workplaces and equipment used in explosive atmospheres.

India’s Cavli is another firm majoring in multimode IoT modules in various combinations. The firm has been partnering with GCT Semiconductor in development of chipsets it then licenses to manufacturers of LPWAN, LTE and 5G IoT modules in India.

Along similar lines to CWD, one of the modules combines NB-IoT, rather than LoRa, with BLE, with integrated eSIM and GNSS, again targeting wearables, smart utility meters and asset tracking. It is also described as being Sigfox-compatible, offering another LPWAN combo.