Verizon and Sequans ramp up LTE Cat M chipsets for US networks

Low-power LTE specialist Sequans has announced a joint accelerator project with Verizon, aimed at speeding up the commercial deployment of the upcoming LTE Cat M devices – expected to be formally standardized in Release 13 of the 3GPP’s standard in March.

Release 13 will also see a new set of LTE terminology introduced. Cat 1 devices will still be referred to as Cat 1, but the Cat-M devices will now be split into two groups. Cat M1 will encompass what was previously called Cat M, while Cat M2 will encompass the upcoming NB-IoT standard that is on track to be included in Release 13 – although likely not in its finished form.

Sequans CEO Georges Karam told RIoT that Cat M2 was never going to make it into Release 13 as the finished article, noting that Sequans has been saying such a feat was impossible from day one. Now that Cat M refers exclusively to narrowband LTE implementations, narrow compared to the 20MHz LTE bands but not so much the 868MHz ISM implementations, the cellular industry’s IoT offerings appear much more unified.

That unification, from the designation at least, means that as the industry begins sunsetting and refarming the 2G and 3G networks, the LTE transition using the standards in Release 13 should be a little more straightforward to market to adopters looking to embrace IoT applications. For most networks, the upgrade path from Cat 4 to Cat 1 and onto Cat M should be achievable through software updates, according to Karam.

The Sequans Cat M2 offering is aimed at devices with very low data bandwidth requirements, but which require minimal power usage. Cat M2 LTE is likely to offer around 40kbps downlink and 55kbps uplink speeds, using Half Duplex Frequency Division Duplex (HD-FDD) modulation and 200kHz of spectrum.

Cat M1 offers significantly more bandwidth, at around 300kbps downlink and 375kbps uplink, using HD-FDD and a 1.4MHz channel. Cat 1 will still offer up to 10Mbps downlink and 5Mbps uplink speeds, using FDD and 20MHz of spectrum, and will likely be used by devices that have bandwidth requirements that exceed the Cat M offerings.

A big advantage that the cellular MNO adopters will have is that they would be able to sell a complete range of solutions to IoT adopters – with protocols suited to match any number of use cases. For low-power sensors, Cat M2 is well-placed, while Cat M1 allows devices that can sacrifice the longer range of M2 to enjoy the increased speeds of M1 – without needing to make the jump to the significantly more complex and power hungry Cat 1.

Karam also said that it would be possible to create dual-mode chips that could support both M1 and M2, allowing devices to switch between protocols depending on requirement – sacrificing speed for range or penetration if the device found itself without a connection to a base station.

Devices like wearables could also switch modes depending on whether they were handling voice data and images or simply updating a positional coordinate or step-count. Tri-mode options of Cat 1 and both Cat M protocols would also be possible, although these chips, and Karam said Sequans would look at implementing them in its next generation of Cat 1 chips if it saw proven use cases in the market for them.

This new Verizon-Sequans initiative will see the pair collaborate to promote the adoption of the low-power flavors of the LTE standard that has been designed for IoT and M2M devices – initially focusing on Cat M1. The lower data rate and single antenna design allow for devices with much greater power efficiency, and therefore longer battery lives – a key requirement for IoT devices.

The Cat M announcement follows a previous deal between the two that saw Verizon become the first MNO to deploy Cat 1 LTE devices in the world. However, the news also follows the recent revelation that Sony had acquired Altair, Sequans’ closest rival, for some $212m.

While Sequans was first to market with the Cat 1 devices, it was shortly followed by Altair and eventually Qualcomm. Last week, Gemalto also announced that its Cinterion Cat 1 chipset had been certified by Verizon too – with Sequans supplying the chips for Gemalto. With the Cat M win, Sequans is retaining its lead in this space – fending off competition from the much more established Qualcomm and Gemalto.

We asked Karam how he felt about the Altair acquisition, and were told that he felt it was good news for Sequans. Karma says Sequans has already begun fielding calls from Altair customers looking to switch to Sequans chips, and notes that Altair doesn’t have a certified LTE M offering yet. He said that Sony has acquired a Cat 1 and Cat 0 offering, which doesn’t have a Cat M offering yet.

As for other players in the low-power LTE market, Karam said that Qualcomm’s entrance was a good thing for both Altair and Sequans, and added that it would be bizarre if Intel didn’t make a play in the space. Intel and Qualcomm might play at the more comprehensive end of the market – trying to offer complete platforms rather than just the chipsets like Sequans and Altair. Karam also noted that Sequans can survive at much lower volumes than Intel and Qualcomm.

Back in January, Sequans also announced a deal with Foxconn-owned SoC designer Socle Technology to design LTE-enabled IoT SoCs – promising to develop a “family of LTE solutions meeting the low power, low cost, processing, and interface requirements of a wide variety of M2M and IoT applications. The resulting solutions will be used by Sequans to expand its StreamliteLTE family of chipset products and by Foxconn to serve their IoT customers.” The first product is expected to sample in 2016.

Sequans says that its Cat 1 chipsets will still cater to the established higher bandwidth IoT applications like security, telematics and digital signage, but that the new Cat M chipsets will be used in new applications like wearables, asset trackers, smart meters, industrial sensors, and smart city deployments.

“Verizon was the first in the world to make IoT-optimized Category 1 features available on our LTE network, and we’re committed to continuing our leadership in this space,” said Rosemary McNally, VP of Device Technology at Verizon. “We are pleased that Sequans is accelerating LTE CAT M-capable chipsets, as this provides more choices for customers interested in leveraging the largest, most reliable LTE network.”