Wake up and smell the vaporware of LTE for IoT

Wake up and smell the vaporware of LTE for IoT

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By Peter Clarke

For those who aren’t familiar with the term vaporware, it simply means hardware or software that is heavily promoted, but not for sale. It exists in the air but is not tangible. This seems to be the case with narrowband Long Term Evolution (LTE) modems for the Internet of Things (IoT).

I’ve been following the rash of pre-announcements, since February of this year, of all the impending LTE modems and chips compliant to the Release 13 standard for low power, low bandwidth IoT applications, and adopted by the 3G Partnership Project (3GPP) this past June. The anticipated volume of Release 13 compliant devices is expected to be huge. The numbers being thrown around are 50 billion IoT products by 2025, or 2020, depending upon who you’re talking to. That’s forty IoT devices in every middle class home around the globe, and then some.

Wireless IoT products that operate on 2G and 3G mobile networks have been around for a while now. Despite some of those networks being shut down, they aren’t cheap. While one can buy a 2G modem module for less than about $8, a 2G subscription can cost $100 per year or more just to send a few text messages. Most existing deployments have been for things like sensors and asset tracking, but to get to 50 billion deployments, things like refrigerators, ovens, and door-bells will need to be included and will need to operate on a significantly lower-cost network.

There have been many recent attempts to get the price of wireless IoT networking down. Most of these approaches have utilized unlicensed radio frequency bands without a network subscription. The rumor mill has predicted the eventual demise of unlicensed band IoT networks since it is crucial to have a reliable connection; something more easily managed in a licensed frequency band.

I’ve not seen any pricing for LTE-IoT network subscriptions yet. That appears to remain top secret. Certainly, it will be the cost of a subscription, not the price of a modem, that will determine which technology grabs the lion’s share of those 50 billion sockets.

While it seems that everybody knows what narrowband LTE will do, apparently nobody agrees on what it is called. I’ve read terms like LTE-M, CAT-M2, NB-IOT, NB1 – and I have probably missed a few other acronyms. Regardless of what it is called, I certainly can’t find any modems available for purchase that use these standards. There are lots of flyers, and marketing brochures, promises of pending releases, and places to “pre-order”. But apparently no parts yet.

I certainly don’t want to disparage the companies that have been playing the vaporware game – and there are a lot them – but it sure seems like the management at those companies has not studied what happened a few decades ago to semiconductor companies that played this same game. Today, most companies quietly introduce products to lead customers without announcement to the general technical population. But I don’t recall in a long long time seeing so many public press releases, for so many months, promising things that are not for sale. It has been so long that I can’t even recall the last time I heard the term vaporware.

Perhaps these pre-announcements have a lot to do with the two big tigers standing in the back of the IoT cage. Namely, Intel and Qualcomm. Those companies also have pre-announced IoT products purportedly coming out in 2017. But rather than just a transceiver with a baseband layer and power management, they will also include full-blown microcontrollers with all the bells and whistles. And they will no doubt be manufactured on something close to a 14nm process. We very well may see another blood bath like happened when the smartphone application processor business collapsed a few years ago.

I don’t envy the module companies. With the demise of 2G and 3G IoT, they have little choice if they want to grow their business. But it sure seems to me that it would be more beneficial to put their products and evaluation boards up for sale now so they can be designed in by a maximum number of first adopters. Even without network service available, the designs can still be validated through the use of an LTE base station emulator. Don’t forget, it is always harder for a competitor to replace your part once you are on the board.

Scott Elder, a senior analog IC design consultant, is a 28-year veteran of analog IC design and the named inventor on 16 patents in the fields of precision analog signal processing, power management, RF CMOS, and LED drivers.

This article first appeared on EE Times’ Planet Analog website.

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