SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Narrowband-IoT version of LTE for the Internet of Things took a big leap forward this week at the Mobile World Congress with reports of new chips, software, and service offerings. NB-IoT is predicted to take the lion’s share of cellular IoT connections over the next few years, growing in parallel with LTE M1 and a host of non-cellular, long-range nets led by LoRa.

Sequans Communications announced its first chip optimized for NB-IoT, leapfrogging Qualcomm. Startup Riot Micro teamed up with a software developer to show a dual-mode (NB-IoT/LTE M1) network, and Qorvo rounded out its portfolio of low-band RF chips for all low-power wide-area networks.

LPWANs will be the world’s fastest-growing connectivity technology through 2025, supporting 4 billion IoT devices by that date, according to market watcher ABI Research. For its part, Qorvo said that it saw 20% growth in the market for low-band products in 2017.

China Mobile reported at MWC that it has launched NB-IoT networks in 346 cities using chipsets from five companies — Huawei, Mediatek, Qualcomm, RDA, and ZTE. The carrier has approved for use on its network 15 NB-IoT modules using the chips, according to a report from TechInsights analysts at the event.

Goodix, a chip vendor in China known for touchscreen controllers and fingerprint sensors, announced that it will sell NB-IoT chips, using IP from its acquisition of Germany’s CommSolid GmbH. It showed a live demo of its technology on the Vodafone network in Barcelona, said TechInsights.

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The SQN3410 is Sequans’ NB-IoT-only chip sporting a programmable RF block. Source: Sequans.

Separately, Cisco reported on trials with China Unicom of an NB-IoT management system, the Cisco Jasper Control Center for NB-IoT. It helps automate control for a wide range of applications from agriculture and building automation to smart metering, parking, fire control, and street lighting.

“We expect to have more than 100 million NB-IoT connections on our network by 2020,” said Xiaotian Chen, general manager of China Unicom’s IoT group, speaking in a Cisco press statement.

China’s other major carrier, China Telecom, gave an update on its aggressive deployments of NB-IoT at a U.S. version of the MWC event last year. The three China carriers are racing to carry out government mandates to deploy cellular IoT.


Sequans, Riot, Qorvo parts and demos

For its part, Sequans announced its Monarch N, a single chip optimized for LTE Cat NB1/NB2, compliant with 3GPP release 14/15. The company claims that it significantly reduces size and cost compared to its existing dual-mode chip but gave no details other than that it enables modules smaller than 10 mm2.

Sequans said that Monarch N targets markets such as industrial sensors and utility meters. The chip got praise from Verizon for possible use in its guard-band deployments.

“Sequans is a leader in LTE for IoT, and their Monarch technology was instrumental in the launch of our LTE Cat M1 network,” said Chris Schmidt, an executive director at Verizon, side-stepping the question of whether the carrier will use the NB-IoT version.

Startup Riot Micro debuted in December its NB-IoT-only chip that draws milliamps to microamps of power and could sell for well below the industry’s target of a $5 module. At MWC, it partnered with telecom software vendor Amarisoft to demo a dual-mode network using the Riot RM1000 chip and Amarisoft’s Amari LTE 100 software, presumably running on an x86 server.

For its part, Qorvo detailed a portfolio of nine low-band RF chips for any type of IoT network.

The Qorvo parts span bands from 50 to 4,200 MHz. They include transmit linear amplifiers, gain blocks, variable gain amplifiers, attenuators, switches, filters, duplexers, and low-noise amplifiers, optimized for low power and small size.

— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times