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ARM elbows its way into an already crowded NB-IoT semiconductor market

February 25, 2017

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ARM enters the NB-IoT market through acquisitions

This week, ARM (a wholly owned subsidiary of SoftBank Group Corp.) announced its acquisition of two IoT wireless companies and the upcoming availability of NB-IoT intellectual property (IP) based on their technologies. In a blog post, ARM revealed that it had acquired Mistbase, a Swedish company specializing in low-power RF physical layers, and NextG-Com, a UK company with Layer 2 and Layer 3 expertise. The three companies have been working together on an NB-IoT demo using the Mistbase/NextG-Com IP operating on an ARM Cortex-M33 processor implemented on an FPGA. Apparently, ARM appreciated the expertise of its partners and acquired each of them in separate transactions. ARM will demonstrate the combined IP at Mobile World Congress 2017 next week in Barcelona.

If this dual acquisition evokes a sense of déjà vu, it’s because ARM has done this before. In April 2015, ARM announced another dual acquisition in the wireless IoT space when they bought Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) physical layer IP provider, Sunrise Micro Devices (SMD), and BLE firmware stack vendor, Wicentric. This one-two punch acquisition strategy resulted in ARM’s first wireless IP offering, the Cordio BLE portfolio, which was later expanded to include protocols based on IEEE 802.15.4, including ZigBee and Thread.

Now, ARM has employed the same acquisition strategy to obtain the IP for its upcoming Cordio-N portfolio of NB-IoT technology, announced in the same blog post. ARM will leverage its existing RF design expertise (gained through SMD) to create an RF transceiver analog front end. Mistbase will contribute other physical layer components, including the interface to the RF front end, the digital front end, and Layer 1 firmware. NextG-Com will provide the Layer 2 and Layer 3 firmware.

The Cordio-N IP includes a defined RF interface to common RF front ends for customers who wish to use a 3rd-party transceiver.

Cordio-N block diagram

The NB-IoT firmware stack runs on a Cortex-M33 processor. The Cortex-M33 is a highly configurable microcontroller processor based on the ARMv8-M architecture, including an integrated DSP and ARM’s TrustZone security paradigm. The integrated DSP capability of the Cortex-M33 leads to one of the key differentiating advantages of Cordio-N. According to ARM, the Cortex-M33 enables NB-IoT designs to eliminate a discrete DSP that would otherwise be necessary. In fact, ARM claims that for many NB-IoT designs, an SoC using the Cordio-N IP with a single Cortex-M33 processor can be a one-chip NB-IoT solution, hosting the stack as well as the application.

The digital portion of Cordio-N is expected to be available as RTL in Q3 2017. ARM hopes to have the RF front end available as a hard macro around the same time with a test chip for hardware verification in Q4 2017. If all goes to plan, ARM’s semiconductor partners will have commercial silicon available in the second half of 2018.

NB-IoT: The mobile operators’ response to the IoT opportunity (or threat?)

The 3GPP (3rd-Generation Partnership Project) developed eMTC and NB-IoT technologies (ratified as LTE Cat-M1 and LTE Cat-NB1, respectively) as part of an overall push to broaden the applicability of mobile technology from the traditional focus on mobile broadband to also include “massive IoT” and “mission-critical communications”. This effort arose from the recognition that the traditional handset market is maturing and becoming saturated in most developed economies.

The June 2016 ratification of LTE Release 13 by 3GPP bifurcated the LPWA market between licensed and unlicensed technologies. Cat-M1 and Cat-NB1 are extensions of traditional mobile 4G LTE technology used by mobile operators in licensed frequency spectrum. Each technology is an effort to optimize LTE mobile broadband technology for the needs of “massive IoT” applications, such as asset tracking and environmental monitoring. Cat-M1 is more closely related to traditional LTE and currently enables packet voice functionality and true mobility. Cat-NB1 initially arose out of an industry “clean slate” effort to imagine a technology built from the start for IoT. However, the resulting Cat-NB1 standard is closer to LTE than originally envisioned, though it lacks support for voice or mobility at present. (These capabilities will likely come in future iterations with Release 14.)

Meanwhile, unlicensed LPWA technology vendors are pushing strongly to advance their positions ahead of widespread commercial deployment of Cat-M1 and Cat-NB1, starting in 2017 and ramping in 2018. Other LPWA technologies, such as LoRa, Sigfox, and RPMA typically use either the unlicensed sub-GHz ISM (Industrial, Scientific, and Medical) bands or the universal 2.4 GHz band.

IHS Markit believes that most service providers are more comfortable with open standards (particularly 3GPP standards) and prefer the predictable reliability of licensed spectrum. Also, not insignificantly, NB-IoT typically does not require new hardware at base station locations; it is a software upgrade. For these reasons, IHS Markit believes there is pent up demand for NB-IoT as carriers have held back waiting for 3GPP standards to be available. IHS Markit expects that 2017 will be characterized by numerous NB-IoT trials, with many entering commercial deployment before the end of the year. A mix of trials and widespread commercial deployment will continue in 2018 with volume ramping in 2019 and continuing for several years to come, beginning in developed regions and shifting to undeveloped regions in later years as the technology matures.

NB-IoT connections forecast

NB-IoT connections graph

IHS Markit forecasts that the number of NB-IoT connections will increase from 1.1 million in 2017 to 141.7 million in 2021, a compounded annual growth rate of 240%.

ARM is only the most recent entrant in an already crowded NB-IoT semiconductor landscape

ARM is certainly not the first semiconductor company to set their sights on the NB-IoT market. In fact, there are at least six other major semiconductor vendors with NB-IoT products announced:

  • Altair Semiconductor announced its FourGee-1210 Cat-1/Cat-M (Cat-M1) chipset in July 2016, with commercial availability set for 4Q 2016. The FourGee-1210 is being used in the eMTC trials of AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Altair plans to include NB-IoT support in the future. Of note, Altair Semiconductor was acquired by Sony in February 2016.
  • Huawei was the first to introduce an NB-IoT chipset (the pre-standard Iceni, acquired with the Neul acquisition in 2016) with its first standards-compliant chipset (Boudica100 NB-IoT Chipset) released in June 2016. Huawei is currently providing the chipset to module makers u-blox and Quectel, and expects the chipset to be used in commercial networks in early 2017.
  • Intel announced two chipsets in February 2016: the XMM 7115 Cat-NB1 modem and the XMM 7315 single-chip modem/application processor supporting both Cat-M1 and Cat-NB1.
  • Qualcomm announced its MDM9206 Cat-M1/NB1 modem in October 2015. However, modules using the MDM9206 are not expected until the beginning of 2017.
  • Sequans Communications introduced its Monarch Cat-M1/NB1 single-chip product in February 2016. The Monarch chip is being used in Verizon Wireless’s eMTC trials. Just this week, Sequans announced the Monarch SX, a highly integrated NB-IoT SoC that adds an ARM Cortex-M4 processor, a sensor hub, a graphics controller, and a media processing engine to the original Monarch transceiver.
  • Nordic Semiconductor, best known for its leadership in BLE semiconductors, kicked off a cellular IoT initiative in late 2015 and announced their nRF91 family of dual mode eMTC/NB-IoT chips in July 2016. Nordic expects to sample the nRF91 in the second half of 2017 with production in 2018.

ARM is not a first mover, but it is still very early days for the NB-IoT semiconductor market. The market will still be in its infancy when products with ARM IP arrive in 2018. Of course, the arrival of ARM in the NB-IoT market foreshadows an even more crowded competitive landscape in years to come. IP vendors such as ARM lower the barriers to entry and reduce the time to market for second-wave competitors, ASIC vendors, and in-house silicon teams at OEMs. ARM is also working with service operators to pre-certify Cordio-N for use on their networks, further reducing the burden on semiconductor partners and OEMs. In these ways, ARM promises to super charge the competitive market for NB-IoT silicon, ensuring the lowest possible prices and most innovative features.

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