• Where IoT factored into a broad set of vendor messaging at Mobile World Congress 2017, there were diverse messages coming out of various camps: silicon vendors, LPWAN network providers, incumbent telecom vendors, specialist telecom and IT players.
• Major chipset vendors came to MWC17 ready to talk up their progress, most of which seemed to focus on automotive use cases, differentiators beyond connectivity and connectivity beyond NB-IoT.
IoT is a big topic, dominating many discussions around the future of wireless networks and telecom service providers.
It wasn’t surprising, then, that it was a major topic of discussion at MWC this year. Likewise, given the broad reach of IoT use cases and the broad set of players in the IoT ecosystem, it wasn’t surprising to see different parts of the market show up with their own stories. A look at the announcements from various segments of the market – silicon vendors, LPWAN network providers, incumbent telecom vendors, specialist telecom and IT players – helps to illustrate the stories they showed up to tell.
While not exhaustive, the table below recaps the announcements released by major silicon vendors at (or in the general timeframe of) MWC. While every vendor showed up to tell its own story, a number of clear themes emerged.
• Cars Rule. While the depth of focus on automotive-related use cases varied – from Qualcomm’s all out blitz, to Altair’s more limited mention – most everyone on the silicon front came to MWC ready to talk about cars. Given the processing and connectivity needed by these giant mobile computers (even before they go autonomous), the opportunity is huge and one that everyone needs to have a strategy for addressing. There’s also another angle here: Where IoT is essentially about diverse vertical use cases, automotive is a natural fit for anyone trying to drive wide area wireless connectivity given the coverage and capacity demands (and their critical nature).
• Silicon vs. Solutions. No different than LPWAN networks requiring solutions to run on them, chipsets on their own don’t yield workable IoT applications. They require operating systems and application-specific hardware. They need to be built into modules. They need to be spec’d early on by vendors building those solutions and applications. Ideally, for optimal performance, all of these components would be tightly integrated. At the extreme, this helps to explain Intel’s $15.3 billion bid to buy Mobileye. While much less headline-grabbing (though more tightly aligned with the Mobile World Congress timing), it’s the same rationale behind Qualcomm’s Android Things support, Intel’s LIQD program or Sequans’ work with everyone from Huawei to STMicroelectronics.
• NB-IoT vs. Everything Else. Building off the buzz of Mobile World Congress 2016, the 2017 edition should have been a major coming out party for NB-IoT. You wouldn’t know it from following the news of the silicon players. Yes, IoT specialist Sequans launched its Monarch SX SoC including support for NB-IoT and Altair launched the ALT1250 chip with NB-IoT support as well. But Intel barely talked up connectivity, and Qualcomm largely ignored NB-IoT, announcing LTE support in CBRS and a tri-mode SoC including Bluetooth Low Energy, dual-band WiFi and 802.15.4 support (along with automotive use cases supported by 802.11ad). And you could argue that any new product announcement was dwarfed by evidence of real world traction and product certifications focused on Cat-1 (mostly) or Cat-M. Does this point to a lack of widespread interest among service providers in NB-IoT? It’s not clear. Given the variety of potential IoT use cases, certifying a variety of products (including some that support voice, unlike NB-IoT) makes sense. And, when an NB-IoT pioneer like Huawei chooses to work with Sequans to build modules, the implication of a slow-to-develop NB-IoT ecosystem is hard to ignore – pushing many operators (for example, those in North America) to choose Cat-M as their near-term cellular IoT focus. That makes 2017 a critical, but potentially awkward year for NB-IoT. The technology needs to quickly ramp up its momentum and ecosystem while also proving its value over other technologies – cellular and non-cellular LPWAN. That’s a potentially tall order.