LTE shows it can slim down like the cool kids for IoT

20150916 parking meter sign

A sign seen in Boston in September 2015 points drivers to a centralized parking pay station. Parking meters are among the Internet of Things devices that can communicate using a variety of low-throughput, low-power wireless technologies. 

Credit: Stephen Lawson

The slow but power-sipping LTE Category M technology is coming out in a chip for devices

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LTE is the champion for smartphone service, but in the Internet of Things, it's just starting to become a challenger.

On Tuesday, Sequans Communications announced what it called the first chip for LTE Category M, a variant of the global mobile standard that is tuned for low-power IoT gear like utility meters, factory sensors and wearables. The chip, called Monarch, will be ready to go into devices when Category M networks go live late this year or in early 2017, the company said.

IoT devices need a different kind of network from what phones and tablets use. No one's firing up those IoT devices to watch HD video or play games, but no one's plugging them in for recharging every night, either. They need slower connections that don't drain the batteries, because they may be out in the field for 10 years.

Upstarts like SigFox, Ingenu and the LoRa Alliance sprung up in recent years to meet these specialized needs with LPWANs (low-power wide-area networks). The opportunity could be huge: Machina Research estimates nearly 1.5 billion connections by 2020. 3GPP, the international body that brought you LTE, is adapting that standard so it can do some of the same things. This could make it easier for carriers to start bringing new IoT devices online through something as (relatively) simple as a network software upgrade.

The 3GPP let rivals get a head start in this area, but there's still time to make Category M a hit, Machina analyst Godfrey Chua said via email. IoT is in an early stage, and some regions and industries are adopting it only now. But a key test for Category M will be whether it works as well as promised.

"Tech specs are one thing, but another is proving it can perform in the field," he said.

Sequans already has at least one carrier partner, Verizon, for its Category M development. The companies previously worked together on LTE Category 1, an earlier standard for less power-constrained IoT devices like cash machines, point-of-sale terminals and vehicle telematics systems. Verizon has since brought Category 1 devices onto its network.

Sequans' Monarch chip complies with two variants of Category M. The first, Category M1, has an upload speed of 375Kbps (bits per second). Category M2 is even slower and less power-hungry and can upload data at 55Kbps. (These devices will send out more data than they download, so they're slightly faster upstream.)

The M1 standard is nearly done and M2 should be complete by the middle of this year, according to Sequans. M2 has been in the works for some time, previously under the name NarrowBand-IoT.

In addition to meters and wearables, things like health monitors, home-automation gear and asset-tracking devices may use M1 or M2 networks. With power management technology that Sequans builds in, the Monarch chip will allow small devices to last 10 to 15 years on a battery, the company said.

Gemalto, a digital security company, is partnering with Sequans to build IoT device modules with added features around the company's chips. In addition to working on Monarch-based LTE M1/M2 modules, on Tuesday Gemalto announced modules built around Sequans's LTE Category 1 chip. The new Gemalto modules are equipped for fallback to a 2G or 3G network if LTE Category 1 isn't available.

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