Sierra Wireless’ XR Routers Offer up Important Lessons in IoT Innovation

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By Jamie Moss | 2Q 2021 | IN-6184

Sierra Wireless is taking advantage of the continued evolution of networks by offering an adaptable router for IoT customers.

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The First in a New Line


Sierra Wireless has launched the first 2 routers in its XR series, the XR80 and XR90. They are multi-network routers, supporting 5G, Wi-Fi 6, and 5Gbps Ethernet. They are also general purpose, intended for any high bandwidth, low latency, mission-critical application, with Sierra Wireless citing the specific example of real-time video streaming. The XR80 and XR90 are modular, their 5G components being stackable, due to multiplex cellular connections for a greater throughput rate, and removeable so that in the future they can be upgraded with new, better 5G chipsets. At present, both routers use Sierra Wireless’ EM9190 module, which is based on a Qualcomm 5G chipset. The purpose of multi-network routers is redundancy: to be able to choose the connection with the best performance at any given time. This feature is dynamically managed by Sierra Wireless’ AirLink operating system (OS), with AirLink OS’s patented cognitive radio being able to switch network connection types in under a second, according to the vendor.

Lastly, and most notably, Sierra Wireless’ new routers contain a low-power wide-area (LPWA) module, the Sierra Wireless HL7800, which uses the Cat-M and NB-IoT-capable Sony Altair 1250 chipset. The HL7800 is a “Ready-to-Connect” module, featuring integrated global connectivity using Sierra Wireless’ own virtual Radio Access Network (RAN). This allows an always-on, out-of-band links to Sierra Wireless’ cloud-based AirLink Management System (ALMS). Customers buying the XR80 and XR90 routers can choose their 5G service provider, which can also be Sierra Wireless if they wish, while the separate LPWA connection acts as a control channel to download 5G service provider credentials, and to provide Sierra Wireless with a permanent link to each unit sold for product lifecycle support. The LPWA link is active but latent whenever the 5G connection is active. The XR80 and XR90 are the first in what will become a bigger line of router products, designed with the same multi-network, general-purpose, modular, and LPWA-supported ethos.

Innovation Stems from A Combination


Routers with multiple connectivity options are nothing new. Sierra Wireless’ innovation stems from its combination of cognitive radio, physical modularity, and LPWA. Cognitive radio adds a level of intelligence that simplifies matters for customers: there is no need for them to choose which telecommunications technology to use, as that will be done for them depending on which one will deliver the results they require. This is a means of providing a quality of service (QoS) guarantee for the customer, with the vendor acting on their behalf to ensure a business outcome. This is what Internet of Things (IoT) customers really seek to purchase as they do not simply want a technical solution to a problem. This in turn makes cognitive radio a means to help hardware vendors to become service providers, even if it is not a subscription service per se, by automatically managing the operation of their customers’ equipment. With this flexibility of connectivity options, 5G can be the primary, interim, or latent backup means of backhaul.

The XR80 and XR90 use a cartridge system that allows the physical separation of the 5G radio portions of the router, by removing of 2 bolts. The cheaper XR80 has one built-in 5G modem and can accommodate a second modem in the form of single cartridge, which can be swapped out for an updated one in the future. The XR90 has no built in 5G modem but accommodates two cartridges, for future proofing and to double up on latterly available 5G throughput rates. The stock EM9190 5G module that ship in both models provides Sub-6 and millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G New Radio (NR), with Cat-20 LTE and 3G for fallback. The physical interface between the cartridges and their base units are proprietary, and not open to third party use. The cartridge system is a fundamental part of the design of the XR range, as its physical upgradeability improving product longevity, offering cost savings for customers in the long-term, and providing peace of mind for them at the point of purchase.

Finally, the LPWA module integrated into the base unit provides a control channel to help embed Sierra Wireless with its customers. It completes the job begun by the standalone cognitive radio, of turning a hardware vendor into a hardware-as-a service provider. The LPWA connections performs several important tasks. Firstly, it allows zero-touch provisioning for the customer when setting up their device’s Wi-Fi credentials and activating its 5G connectivity, regardless of where in the world it is powered on. Zero-touch provisioning is a crucial guiding principle for the IoT, as anything that can be done remotely and without manual intervention represents cost savings, making services easy to activate and to make alterations to afterwards. Secondly, an inclusive always-on connection ensures there is always be a fallback link to recover a device, in the event of external antennas becoming disconnected, the customer’s broadband provider experiencing an outage, or a contract not being paid for.

Serve the Customer, to Serve Oneself


The industrial gateway and router market for the IoT is higher margin and, despite lower volume shipments, is one for module vendors to double down on in the light of the increasing commoditization of modules themselves. The XR90 (available in Q2 2021) costs US$1,899, and the XR80 (available in Q3 2021) will cost US$1,299. A key strategy for Sierra Wireless right now is to focus on the products that offer the greatest profitability-to-development-cost trade-off. Regardless of whether this causes shipments to fall or its turnover plateau, margin is what matters most to Sierra. It is interesting to note that Quectel, the module vendor with by far the greatest shipment volumes and turnover worldwide, is experiencing declining year-on-year net profitability, which at the end of 2020 stood at 3%. Module vendors therefore now stand at a threshold of whether to pursue shipments and market share at the expense of unit value or take on a nominally lesser role but one of higher value.

Sierra Wireless’ new routers clearly show the complementary nature of IoT connectivity, both in the combination of 5G with Wi-Fi 6 and Ethernet, which are often considered to be mutually exclusive high bandwidth choices and as well as in the combination of 5G modems with a separate LPWA modem, each of the two cellular connections performing a distinct but reciprocal function. Sierra Wireless is using 5G as a channel for the promotion of LPWA, a task that has proved difficult in Western markets thus far. They also are working to lever the standards-wise maturity of LPWA as a mechanism to kickstart the rollout of 5G in the IoT, which has stalled in finding its footing. It shows the value-based utility of LPWA, in contrast to the data transport-based utility of 5G (and preceding 3GPP generational standards). It also provides a practical example of how LPWA can potentially pay for itself, as a loss-leader for the acceleration of the adoption of higher-margin opportunities, and as an enabler analogous to NFC making a cinch of Bluetooth pairing.

Sierra Wireless is looking to the future for the sake of its customers and not merely itself. With no need to replace the whole router as 5G inevitably evolves, Sierra Wireless is providing a channel for future business, as its XR customers can simply buy modular upgrades for their existing equipment, rather than swap them out for another company’s products. This will be cheaper for the customer to do, as well as promote brand loyalty, while denying opportunities to the competition whose complete replacements will cost more. Customers can also be secure in the knowledge the 5G performance they receive will be at the cutting edge, not just for the duration of the current crop of chipsets, but into the future to chips not yet designed, as Sierra Wireless anticipates that 3 or 4 more generations of 5G radio will appear. Innovation matters greatly for the mid to long-term security of IoT module and hardware vendors, and Sierra Wireless is offering up some timely lessons in how to correctly serve the customer, to thereby serve oneself.



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