Cellular Internet of Things standards are expected to get strong market penetration in 2017, following reports that two of the largest U.S. cellular carriers and five module makers will use a Qualcomm chip implementing the latest low-power LTE standards for the IoT.

AT&T will use the Qualcomm’s MDM9206 in a San Francisco pilot of Cat-M1 that it expects to be the start of a national service rollout in 2017. Verizon will use the chip in its Thingspace service. Cellular module makers Quectel, Telit, U-Blox, Simcom and Wistron NeWeb Corp. said they will use the chips in modules supporting Cat-M1 and NB-1 services.

The Cat M1 standard delivers up to 380Kbits/second over a 1.4MHz channel. NB-1 handles up to 40Kbits/s over 200kHz channels. Qualcomm said the modules using its chips will ship in early 2017 for Cat-M1, with a software upgrade to NB-1 following “shortly thereafter.”

The lower power LTE specifications are expected to enable new kinds of cellular IoT uses in electric and water meters, building security and lighting, industrial control, retail point of sale and asset tracking. Low power IoT apps previously used mainly 802.15.4 variants with a swath of new options courting uses that need support across wide areas.

The flood of new IoT networks is seen as a game changer, especially in cellular. Vendors hope the 7-billion-unit installed base of cellular M2M modules expands as what has been a market of custom-built systems turns into something of a do-it-yourselfer’s paradise.

The options are already creating strange bedfellows. France’s Orange, for example, is rolling out LoRa as well as cellular IoT networks, and cellular module maker U-Blox started making modules for the Ingenu network.

Initially, U.S. giants AT&T and Verizon will deploy M1 networks while China and Vodaphone and Deutsche Telekom in Europe will use NB1 first, in part due to issues of spectrum availability. Some carriers in Europe aim to support a third cellular IoT spec, a 3G variant called Extended Coverage GSM which uses 200kHz channels.

“Ultimately, 80-90% of carriers will offer both [M1 and NB1] because there’s enough differentiation between the two, and NB1 has a sweet spot in sensor networks,” said Aapo Markkanen, an analyst with Machina Research.

Qualcomm, Sequans clash in cellular IoT

Some carriers will launch the new cellular IoT services before the end of the year and the area will be a big focus at January’s Consumer Electronics Show. “We are definitely seeing broad adoption,” said Art Miller, a senior director of business development at Qualcomm.

The chip maker is using a single product with a simplified RF front end that can be used worldwide for either standard. Ultimately, vendors are expected to create optimised chips for each standard as demand grows.

Qualcomm’s announcement follows comments from smaller rival Sequans which said in September it was sampling its M1/NB1 Monarch chip that had a big lead in the market. “We will be part of the first wave of products, and while others say they have a 6-9 month lead we can assure you that is not the case,” said Qualcomm’s Miller.

Sequans CEO Georges Karam stood by his statement. He believes the MDM9206 is “a chip originally designed for low-end Cat 3 LTE, and Qualcomm did a software downgrade to make it work at lower speeds…[but it] doesn't solve the problem that Cat M and NB address—namely, to provide a very low cost and very low power solution.”

Karam said modules based on the Monarch chip will sell for less than ₹670.56 ($10). Another Qualcomm chip, the MDM9205, will be a more realistic rival to Monarch but won’t ship until sometime next year, he added.

Separately, Qualcomm rolled out a camera reference design based on the Snapdragon 625, a new 64-bit, eight-core mobile SoC that supports 4K video and is made in a 14nm process.

In addition, it announced three other mid-range mobile SoCs that integrate Cat 7 LTE modems and support 2x 20MHz carrier aggregation. The Snapdragon 653 and 626 will ship by the end of the year with the 427 following in early 2017.

Qualcomm camera reference design (cr) Figure 1: A new 64-bit, eight-core Snapdragon 625 made in a 14nm process powers a camera reference design. (Source: Qualcomm)