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Apr 03, 2015

LTE for the IoT: Interview with Eran Eshad, Altair Semiconductor

By Anne Fisher, Managing Editor

A tough nut to crack has been an apt description of achieving low-power and standards-based long range IoT/M2M technology, but LTE chipsets may be just the tool to crack the nut and help beef up IoT end device security—from the Smart Grid to the smart watch.

Editor’s note: Our thanks to Eran Eshad, co-founder and vice president of marketing and business development at Altair Semiconductor, who recently offered his insights on a number of topics.

EECatalog: You’ve noted recently the “industry development gap” with regard to chipsets supporting CAT-1 and CAT-0. In general, what are the characteristics an enterprise supporting smart IoT applications should follow in order to be first to market with broadly applicable solutions?

Eran Eshad, Altair Semiconductor: Constantly monitor market needs and match them against your company’s forecasted technology and standards roadmaps to try and identify market opportunities as early as possible. In our case, we identified the need for a low-cost, low-power and standards-based long range IoT/M2M technology and matched it against the 3GPP initiative of developing revised LTE standards to cope with it—this is the LTE Machine Type Communication (MTC) standard variant.

Being in this industry for 20 years or so, we knew how long these processes take to mature and our assessment [made] two years ago was that MTC will not mature before 2018 at best—this applies mostly to the network side, as MTC introduces some pretty radical concepts that require major changes to existing infrastructure. This is the gap based on which we decided to develop a CAT-1 and CAT-0 chipset that today is the only alternative to the aging 2G connections, and to the much more expensive CAT-4 LTE solutions. We of course are investing in MTC as the next generation of LTE for IoT and we plan to be there among the first players, however at the same time we are benefitting from a very strong market position being the only chip vendor with a true CAT-1 and 0 chipset.

As far as the enterprise is concerned, LTE CAT-1 offers a seamless introduction of drastically lower cost/power modules/devices, since practically no network upgrades or updates are required—CAT-1 is fully compatible with existing networks. This makes the deployment barrier for such products much lower and as we believe will spur rapid adoption with M2M service providers.

EECatalog: What are you focusing on with regard to the IoT?

Eshad: We are focusing on the connectivity piece of the solution with the objective of providing a very low cost/power chipset to enable the deployment of millions and more IoT devices on the cellular network. One of the issues that we believe the industry has strong awareness of is security, and this is not just about how to secure the wireless link, it is also about providing a robust security framework for the end device—be it a smart meter or a smart watch. This is a feature that we have integrated into our chipset in hardware, and that we believe will facilitate a much more secure environment upon which to execute cloud-connected applications.

Then of course there is the very important aspect of power consumption, which today is assumed to be technologically unfeasible to solve based on LTE—we believe we cracked this nut.

EECatalog: Embedded systems engineering services provider Connected IO chose your 4G LTE chipset for a low-cost, semi-rugged LTE modem for the M2M and IoT markets—why?

Eshad: This device from Connected IO is a great device for a wide array of applications— from vending machines to digital signs or any other connected application that needs a simple to install, affordable and reliable cellular connection. The chipset by Altair that is integrated in this product—just as all of our chipsets, implements an LTE-only link, meaning that it does not include hardware and software to support legacy cellular technologies such as 2G and 3G. This is how we are able to achieve price points that are very competitive with alternative technologies and this is why I believe it was attractive for the customer. This of course comes with a quality/reliability seal of having shipped millions of these chipsets to some of the world’s largest carriers, so all in all a very good combination of performance and quality with competitive cost.

EECatalog: What role does and will Altair Semiconductor be playing in helping the Smart Grid and smart metering mature? How should the enterprises in general that are active in this space develop solutions so that the Smart Grid is more than just the sum of its parts?

Eshad: We are deeply involved in the smart metering industry in all three major areas: electricity, gas and water. Utility grids are becoming much smarter. The need to manage, monitor and control these end consumption points is becoming critical. Various topologies exist for connecting smart meters to the cloud. We see a very strong demand for our LTE CAT-0/1 chipsets as a simple and secure means of connecting individual meters to the cloud because [this approach avoids] the need to run cables or wires, [allows for] very simple installation, and is a carrier-grade link that provides security and two way IP communications with the meter.

To date cost and power have been the prohibitive factors for not considering 4G for this kind of deployment; this is no longer the case.

EECatalog: What role are standards playing as organizations aim to bring about LTE standardization and broadcast interoperability ?

Eshad: The beauty of standards based technologies (there are some less beautiful sides to it as well…) is the ability to design a generic product, in this case a chipset platform that can service a very wide array of applications and use cases. This is a critical factor for a chip company that needs to achieve very high scale in order to be profitable and successful. What this means for Altair and a chip vendor, is that we sell the exact same chip—with potentially some software adaptations to a very diverse universe of customers—from consumer applications such as smart home or wearable devices, through smart city applications such as parking space management or vending machines, and all the way to gas meters that last 10 years in the field on a single battery.

EECatalog: How are you “future proofing” your offerings?

Eshad: Our products are built upon software defined radio (SDR) architecture, which enables our chipsets to continuously upgrade and update features via software and enables them to stay longer in the field even as standards evolve and new features get introduced. Being able to do this is especially crucial in M2M and IoT markets that in many cases have extremely long replacement cycles, such as 15 or 20 years in applications such as smart meters.

And LTE is a flexible technology that enables firmware updates as part of the standard, so this is another layer of future-proofing that customers using LTE can expect which does not exist in many of the alternative technologies.

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