© bakhtiarzein Analysis | March 21, 2017

ARM elbows its way into the NB-IoT semiconductor market

ARM (a wholly owned subsidiary of SoftBank Group Corp.) acquired two IoT wireless companies and announced 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.

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. 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, writes IHS/Markit.

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

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.

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 percent.

More information can be found on IHS/Markit's website.
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