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LTE chips and IoT: Opportunity on shaky ground

Posted: 26 Feb 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Altair Semiconductor? LTE? IoT? M2M? 3GPP?

Altair Semiconductor is set to release a couple of chipsets ahead of the expected 3GPP standards for the Internet of Things (IoT) with the goal of driving the machine-to-machine (M2M) market toward 4G LTE.

"The vision behind our move to IoT was the notion that there are many use cases out there that require some kind of long-range connectivity. So far M2M has been mostly addressed by 2G technology," said Altair co-founder and VP of marketing Eran Eshed. "These networks are going to be sunset in the not-so-distant future. Carriers really need some upgrade paths and way to address the needs of next billion devices."

Sometimes referred to as machine-type communications (MTC), these cellular communications face a variety of design challenges to fit a breadth of IoT devices. Altair's 1160 CAT-1 and 1150 CAT-0 chip sets use older, "disregarded" modems to provide low power, low cost communications at high data rates.

"LTE is about much more than high speed, as evidenced by the inclusion of CAT-1 in the original 3GPP LTE specification. And there's a move by 3GPP to define even lower-cost, lower-throughput CAT-0 in next year's Release 12," noted Will Strauss, president of Forward Concepts. "There are some who see this road map as accelerating the trend for operators to shutter 2G and 3G networks and migrate to the more efficient 4G LTE technology."

Altair's 1160 chip has a single antenna and is based on a three-year-old 3GPP release capable of 10Mb/s connection. Eshed dismissed claims about lack of need for such a high data rate, noting that the existing network support for CAT-1 trumps data rates. The 1150 chip is a "stepping stone toward release 13" with 1Mb/s speeds and, in the case of a smart meter, a 10-year battery life with milliamp power consumption in idle.

"What's common to most of these applications is the need to have a communication link that would connect many different end points to the cloud," Eshed said. "Most don't need high bandwidth, they need long-range connectivity below a certain price point and in some cases needs to be very low power."

Altair's CAT-1 modules are about half the cost of a CAT-4, which is equivalent to the price of 3G. The CAT-0 chips are priced similar to 2G modules, but would require "painful changes" to a carrier's network.

Despite having to make changes to the network to support CAT-0 modules, Eshed is confident that carriers will come around. Many who were sitting on the fence about MTC six months ago are now on board.

"If carriers wait until 2018 when [LTE MTC standards should be complete and] extra low power, low size comes on board, they will have missed an extremely important window," Eshed said, adding that Altair's chips are ahead of industry estimates for the emergence of CAT-1 and CAT-0 by a year or two. "People are designing products without having seen the chip. To me that means the market needs this technology."

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