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Vaporware for the Internet of Things

For those who aren’t familiar with the term vaporware, it simply means hardware or software that is heavily promoted, but not for sale. Like any vapor, it exists only in air. This seems to be the case with narrow band 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 have been around for a while now and operate on 2G and 3G mobile networks. Despite 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 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 narrow band LTE will do, apparently nobody agrees on what it is called. I’ve read terms like LTE-M, CAT-M2, NB-IOT, NB1–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 have not studied what happened a few decades ago to semiconductor companies that played this same game. Today, most companies quietly introduce their new products to lead customers without pre-announcements 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 micro controllers 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.

2 comments on “Vaporware for the Internet of Things

  1. Victor Lorenzo
    September 17, 2016

    Nice article, Scott, tanks.

    Maybe LTE will take a little bit longer, or even forever, to be widely accepted and deployed.

    Wireless telecom technologies in general tend to have a relatively short live. Relaying on 2G/3G modems for sending sensor data was relatively easy, though major drawback continues to be the subscription cost.

    We passed from sending a few SMS messages, to some MMS, to a few hundred byte data packets, to…. uploading/downloading a huge amount of images and videos directly from phones, tablets and more. This seems to be an endlessly growing hunger for data bandwidth, controlled and provided by telecom operators, and this seems to be what drives their interests and efforts. So 2G was replaced by 3G, 3G is being replaced by 4G, and we are already hearing a lot about the great thing that 5G will be.

    LTE, imho, does not seem to catch too much of their attention. Some telecom providers and operators are making a curious move. E.g. Orange (in France) has deployed a reasonably large LoRa network and has plans to expand it to cover most major cities in France. I can see a much larger market with respect to LoRa that LTE. It is easier to implement, has much more providers and hardware options to select from, many ready-to-use open and closed source libraries are available, and so on.

    Major companies like IBM, Microsoft and Oracle are very actively promoting their Cloud services for IoT and connected devices. It seems relatively easy to deploy a LoRa network with just a few gateways.

    Maybe we already have a non-negligible RF polution in the ISM band, yes. But what will happend at the time this band becomes licensed as all other bands are?

  2. Scott Elder
    September 17, 2016

    Thanks Victor.

    While I get the SigFox-type arguments, it seems that when a big player decides to play, it makes it difficult for everyone else.  If someone like Verizon decided to offer their network at price points below the LoRa solutions, how are LoRa suppliers going to survive?

    The big network providers have so much capital available and, more importantly, networks already deployed.  All they need to do is change the software and presto, LTE IoT networks are immediately deployed.  The LoRa players have to install base stations.  That is a huge disadvantage.

    I've done 2G IoT and it appears that the LTE IoT solutions won't be anymore complicated.  The modems still take AT commands and hook directly to an antenna.  So it seems that the design in will feel the same.

    But who knows.  We'll all have a better idea by June of next year.  I hope.

    Scott

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