Quectel the First to Market with HiSilicon and Qualcomm’s New NB-IoT Chipsets

Subscribe To Download This Insight

By Jamie Moss | 2Q 2021 | IN-6156

The future of the NB-IoT market remains uncertain, but Quectel is acting now to ensure their position at the forefront.

Registered users can unlock up to five pieces of premium content each month.

Log in or register to unlock this Insight.


The 3rd Generation of NB-IoT


Quectel plans to launch the next generation of its Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) modules in May 2021, the Quectel BC95-CNV and BC28-CNV. They will be the first commercially available modules to use the Boudica 200 modem chip from HiSilicon, the semiconductor arm of Huawei. The Boudica 200 is the third and most recent NB-IoT modem chip from HiSilicon, following on from the Boudica 120 and Boudica 150 which launched in mid-2017 and early 2018, respectively. The use of the Boudica 200 brings a specific set of new features to Quectel’s NB-IoT-only product line, most importantly: Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) 5.0, Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) positioning, and a reduction in power consumption over previous HiSilicon-based models by as much as 50%. The Boudica chips have been basic in terms of the features offered in the past, the only difference between the 120 and 150 chips being greater LTE band support, and multi-tone instead of single-tone for a greater throughput rate for the 150.

HiSilicon had been quiet for years on the development of new cellular low-power wide-area (LPWA) chips, as had most semiconductor manufacturers. The bulk of the current crop of NB-IoT chipsets were all launched during 2017 and 2018, with almost nothing new being released during 2019 and 2020, except for Sequans’ Monarch 2. This dearth of development could be considered unsurprising as NB-IoT had yet find its footing outside of China, and most manufacturers had yet to see a meaningful return on their investment in the development of existing product lines. But in China, where there was financial help from government subsidies, NB-IoT shipments had boomed during 2019 and 2020. In those two years combined, 96% of all NB-IoT modules shipped came from Chinese module vendors, and more than 60% of those modules stayed in China, the majority of which contained HiSilicon chips.

But in mid-2020 the drought in innovation came to an end when both HiSilicon and Qualcomm announced new NB-IoT products due at the very end of 2020, the Boudica 200 and the QCX212 (formerly known as the 212 LTE IoT). Quectel is doubling down on its NB-IoT commitment to cover off the future NB-IoT market in China and Asia, as well as in Europe and the Americas, by launching modules based on both new chips. The BC660K-GL, which uses the QCX212, was announced at the same time as Qualcomm’s own press release about the chip’s availability; Qualcomm was keen for the world to know it already had the support of the world’s leading module manufacturers. The BC660K-GL itself became commercially available in Q1 2021, having received regulatory body approval in the USA, Australia and New Zealand, and Singapore in March-April 2021.

BoM, Near-Field Maintenance, and Positioning


It’s fair to ask, why do we need new NB-IoT modules, based on new NB-IoT chipsets, when we already have plenty? Is it innovation for innovation’s sake on the part of the semiconductor manufacturers? Is it bragging rights for being first to market with the latest and greatest on the part of the module vendors? It costs a lot to develop both, so it needs to happen for a good reason. First and foremost comes efficiency, in the form of the greater integration of previously separate components on a single die, for a smaller form factor, a lower bill of materials (BoM), lower power consumption, and a simplified product development cycle, for both the module manufacturer and its device OEM customers. Once new nanometer processes become available, the reduction in chip size and power consumption are amplified even without any further integration, and cost is reduced yet again thanks to a greater yield of chips per wafer.

Secondly comes effectiveness, in the form of the integration of extra features, which may act to increase the size and cost of a chip, but which will save money for any customers that need those features from having to source separate dedicated components. In the case of the Boudica 200, it is BLE 5.0 and GNSS. Feature integration can also simplify the number of Stock Keeping Units (SKUs) for a semiconductor manufacturer, allowing them to supply a general-purpose product to all customers, resulting in an improvement in volume for a product that can be enough to offset any additional unit costs for the customer. A customer is then able to choose not to use any of the features it doesn’t have a need for. Maximum integration on a single die has already been crucial to Qualcomm’s long-term strategy and mass market success for many years now.

BLE 5.0 allows near-field maintenance for NB-IoT devices, with Quectel giving the examples of meters, smoke detectors, and shared bicycles as devices that for the sake of cost control or tamper-proofing do not have a user interface. With BLE, however, they can be connected to an industrial PDA or other field workforce device, to have diagnostic data read from them, to be reconfigured, or to receive firmware updates without needing to rely on the deliberately low throughput, transmit-biased NB-IoT cellular data connection. The inclusion of GNSS is not new and has already occurred in NB-IoT products from Qualcomm, RDA (UNISOC), Sony Altair, and Nordic Semiconductor. GNSS helps to make NB-IoT more useful for mobile applications, even though it is best suited to stationary ones, for intermittent alert-based positioning rather than real-time tracking, and for use in low-cost asset trackers, as well as people and pet trackers.

Do Your Due Diligence


The Boudica 200 is HiSilicon’s most heavily integrated NB-IoT chip, and Quectel is taking full advantage of its capabilities, even if due to political reasons the modules will only find much use in China. The argument for greater integration when it comes to LPWA technologies and the IoT at large is almost counter intuitive, in that the optimization and pairing back of technology to the bare minimum required has always been important for achieving affordability and scale. In addition to which, ironically, the new QCX212 chip from Qualcomm, one of the greatest proponents of single die integration, is the manufacturer’s leanest LPWA product ever. The QCX212 is the first chip from Qualcomm to be NB-IoT only, without LTE-M support, and without 2G fallback or GNSS, although it does support Observed Time Difference of Arrival (OTDOA) for cellular network-based positioning.

What matters when it comes to the addition of new features is that a manufacturer has done its due diligence amongst its customers to be sure those features are needed, and even then may only integrate them at the requests of enough customers in the first place. It may seem that enabling human interaction through BLE goes against the ethos of IoT devices being autonomous, but some maintenance can still be necessary, so to include a way to do so easily is convenient. Plus, some IoT devices will still report errors and still fail from time to time, so if they can be diagnosed and repaired onsite rather than replaced that is still helpful in cost saving. The integration of GNSS has always seemed at odds with the low power nature of LPWA. But some LPWA connections can be readily rechargeable with their utility being based on the wide area, deep penetration, and low cost attributes of the technology, as with people and pet trackers.

Whether module vendors and chipset vendors should add or remove features to deliver maximum value for money depends entirely on their target market. In China there are no LTE-M networks, so starting out with the simplest possible NB-IoT hardware and adding new abilities over time as the market matures makes sense. Conversely, throughout the rest of the world the choice between LTE-M and NB-IoT, and whether or not to include 2G fallback was unclear, so bets were hedged by including all to begin with and then, as the cellular LPWA market finds it feet, develop more specific products. Although, in the case of Qualcomm it may have been looking for a quick way to launch an NB-IoT chipset to simplify OEM choices, reduce costs further, and kick-start the NB-IoT market outside of China. Either way it is Quectel that has picked up both HiSilicon and Qualcomm’s latest chips for inclusion in its modules, and as the vendor with the greatest NB-IoT sales to date, it clearly wants to be the one to retain that position worldwide.



Companies Mentioned