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Comms chips

STM Joins Semtech's IoT WAN Alliance

STMicroelectronics plans to build ICs incorporating circuitry for LoRa wide area networks, the Internet of things (IoT) networking WAN technology developed by Semtech.

LoRaWAN technology is promoted by the LoRa Alliance, which includes Semtech Corp. (Nasdaq: SMTC), along with a set of IoT product suppliers and network operators. The group has an obvious gaping hole, however -- the lack of a second source for LoRaWAN chips, backing up Semtech.

That hole remains open. The agreement between STMicroelectronics NV (NYSE: STM) and Semtech currently cannot be characterized as a second-source pact, according to an STMicro spokesman. The two companies do have a licensing agreement, though they are not discussing the details.

STMicro's first interest is in building microcontrollers with "on-chip LoRa technology that supports the LoRaWAN standardized protocol." STMicro could develop other chips for the LoRa IoT ecosystem, but has yet to commit to that, according to the STMicro spokesman.

As for the availability of LoRa microcontrollers from STMicro, "we're not at the point where we can say anything definitive," the spokesman said.

SigFox, a LoRa competitor, earlier this year identified STMicro as a supplier. The STMicro spokesman was unfamiliar with the relationship.

While attracting STMicro to join the LoRa Alliance certainly adds a measure of validation to the LoRaWAN approach, it is unlikely be decisive. The IoT WAN market is still at an early stage in its development and is especially fractured even by the standards of developing markets.

While WiFi, Zigbee, and Bluetooth are suitable for many IoT deployments thus far (think site-specific applications such as home networking -- basically in LANs), they are inadequate for many developing and future IoT applications, for a number of reasons.

What's needed is a single low-powered WAN (LP WAN) standard, or a small number of standards with clearly differentiated balances of strength and weakness, in the way that WiFi is more appropriate for some short-range applications while Bluetooth is better for others.


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Instead, companies looking to build WANs for IoT applications have to sift from a large set of choices with a bewildering matrix of attributes that include proprietary/non-proprietary technologies, licensed/unlicensed spectrum, bandwidths, ranges from a kilometer to hundreds of kilometers, architectural topologies (some have multiple topologies), data rates, packet sizes, power ranges, scalability (thousands of end devices to millions), whether end node roaming is supported/allowed, and multiple options for how and how often the system will schedule uploads from end devices.

Oh, and there are vastly different business models to choose from as well. There are companies who have defined standards, are building the networks themselves, and then lease access. Meanwhile, there are organizations merely defining LP WAN standards; network operators are obliged to build their own networks that conform to those standards. There are options in between those two extremes.

A partial list of the competing LP WANs, along with some of their key characteristics (brief description, spectrum type used, bandwidth, range), include:

LoRa -- offered as open by Semtech; unlicensed spectrum; chirp spread spectrum; 2km to 15km.

SigFox -- private network; unlicensed spectrum; ultra narrow band (UNB); 10km to 50km.

LTE Cat M -- cellular; licensed spectrum; 1.4MHz; 2km to 5km.

InGeNu RPMA -- private network; unlicensed spectrum; 1MHz; 100s of km (line of sight).

Weightless W (Weightless has three different versions: W, N, and P) -- open; white spaces (US); 5MHz; 5km.

IEEE 802.11ah-- referred to as low-power WiFi; license-exempt, including white spaces (US); 1MHz to 16MHz; 1km.

— Brian Santo, Senior Editor, Components, T&M, Light Reading

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