In the news

May 07, 2014

Does M2M Need LTE?

Light Reading

By Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

LTE-focused chip designer Altair Semiconductor is betting that a 4G-only modem is a big part of the future of machine-to-machine (M2M) communications.

M2M sensors, RFID badges, and tracking tags have typically used short-range radio technology like Zigbee, Bluetooth, and WiFi for connectivity. Carriers, meanwhile, have mostly focused on 2G and 3G networks for M2M applications, figuring that most situations don’t require particularly high-data rates.

The need to avoid truck rolls every few years to upgrade or replace sensors will soon push carriers, utilities, and vendors towards LTE, however, argues Eran Eshed, co-founder and VP of marketing at Altair Semiconductor . “In the M2M space you need to guarantee network longevity, or it’s a non-starter,” he states.

To that end, Altair is working on an LTE-only modem — the ALT100M — for the M2M market in anticipation of more focus on “Internet of Things” devices using 4G. “I’d say that you’ll see products selling in the market next year,” Eshed says of the coming silicon.

Eshed adds that the M2M market has some particular requirements when it comes to comms chips:

The silicon needs to be cheap. The Altair modem is expected to be in sniffing distance of WiFi prices, which could mean $10 or less.
M2M silicon doesn’t need massive throughput. Altair is targeting 10 Mbit/s or much less and optimizing the chip to “sleep” between “bursty” transmissions to lessen power requirements.
Eshed says Altair is working to make the modem as easy for vendors to integrate with the rest of the silicon as possible.
As far as applications go, the sky’s the limit. Eshed is looking at everything from medical sensors to vending machines to automotive applications.

The security and authentication baked into the LTE standard will be particularly important for medical monitoring applications. “There’s no insurance company that will rely on a [wearable with a] Bluetooth connection to an Android phone for that,” Eshed argues.

The company is currently looking at automotive applications that use LTE connectivity for regular reports, rather than needing constant connectivity. “The challenge today is [LTE] coverage,” Eshed says, while noting that the design cycles for actually building new communications into cars can be pretty lengthy, so coverage will become less of an issue over time.

“In the automotive space, what you work on today will be in the market in five years time,” he says.

He also expects, however, that after-market plug-ins using LTE will be a significant market for connected cars. For instance, a driver could use an LTE monitor to report daily or weekly to an insurance company on how fast they drive, how often they brake, and other metrics. Good drivers could then get a better rate based on those real-world but not real-time metrics.

Eshed says that Altair’s LTE-only strategy has been vindicated — in part — by the success of the Verizon Wireless Ellipsis 7 LTE-only tablet. Eshed says that he can’t reveal exactly how many have been sold but that it is “a seven-digit figure.”

Altair provided Verizon with a $30 LTE chip for the project. The operator has the own-brand tablet built by an Asian ODM and sells the tablet for $249.99 without a contract or $49.99 with a two-year agreement. (See CTIA: Verizon Pushes for Single-Mode LTE.)

“Our [LTE-only] strategy has remained the same and expanded,” the CMO says. “But we don’t have to explain or apologize anymore.” (See Altair Raises $25M for Single-Mode LTE.)

In fact, he states, Altair is now ready to consider an IPO. “We’re looking at going public next year,” Eshed says.

To make a success of it though, the company has to stay out of the way of the 4G big daddy Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) and find new markets where its LTE-only strategy will work well, hence this latest push towards the burgeoning M2M market.

Altair is not the only chip company eyeing M2M as an opportunity. Sequans Communications has its StreamliteLTE system-on-a-chip aimed at IoT applications, for instance.

The IoT space, however, is so “fragmented and diverse” that it makes sense to deliver a cheap, easy-to-integrate modem for M2M applications so that vendors can use it as they wish, Eshed argues.