Qualcomm Soft Launches Outsourced Chipset to Quickly Catch Up on Cat-1 bis Market

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By Megan Young | 1Q 2023 | IN-6806

Qualcomm has launched the QCX216 LTE Cat-1 bis Internet of Things (IoT) modem with integrated terrestrial location services and a Wi-Fi receiver for indoor locations. However, Qualcomm cannot take full credit for this chipset’s creation. Who is responsible for the QCX216, and why is this beneficial for both Qualcomm and its strategic technology partners?

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On-Trend on the Cat-1 bis Curve

NEWS


Qualcomm has announced its new, low-power “IoT-Optimized LTE Modem,” the QCX216. It is optimized for Cat-1 bis and has low-power operation to prolong battery life. According to Qualcomm, the low-power and sleep modes draw as little as two microamps, ensuring longevity with an expected battery life of two to five years. Qualcomm credits this achievement to utilizing terrestrial location services over GPS/GNSS.

Despite only recently announcing the launch, the QCX216 has been appearing in module vendor products since the beginning of 2022. Qualcomm’s approach to “soft launching” its Cat-1 bis–capable chipset has put the company ahead of its competitors. If a competing vendor were to develop a similar product today, it would be, at minimum, a year before this product would pass from sampling to shipping and ultimately another year before the chipset would appear in devices that reach the market.

LTE Cat-1 bis (“bis” translating roughly as “again”) is an LTE standard launched in 3GPP’s Release 14 in 2018 and is a revision to the original LTE Cat-1 specifications that first appeared in Release 8. The main difference is Cat-1 bis devices can be made with a single antenna rather than the mandated two antennas seen in previous releases for LTE Cat-1, meaning that there is a reduction in manufacturing costs, size, and weight for the devices.

Outsourcing for Optimum Product Delivery

IMPACT


Chipsets must undergo rigorous testing, first in small batches and then in bulk, before the chipsets become commercially available to be employed into vendor modules or products for further testing before the official product launch. This process can take upward of two years—a timely and costly investment, particularly since the technology only has a limited window of opportunity for the product to take off before the network technology is moved to sunset.

According to industrywide conventional wisdom, despite launching this product under its name, Qualcomm is not the original designer of the QCX216 chip. Eigencomm, a semiconductor manufacturer based in China, is rumored to have licensed its Intellectual Property (IP) for its EC618 Cat-1 bis chip to Qualcomm. It is believed that this has happened before in 2020 with another Qualcomm product, the NB-IoT-only QXC212 chipset, that was based on the Eigencomm EC616.

Licensing a design from a lesser-known manufacturer that has not yet shipped in meaningful volumes means that Qualcomm can get the product to market faster than if it had created its own from scratch. It can also do this more successfully than Eigencomm by leveraging the power, awareness, and critically, trust of Qualcomm’s brand.

Is Cat-1 bis taking off?

RECOMMENDATIONS


Cat-1 bis has been lying dormant, and Cat-1 bis devices have not yet found a definite foothold outside of China where there is no LTE-M. Hardware manufacturing costs and power consumption of LTE Cat-1 bis devices are slightly higher than NB-IoT and LTE-M. But the benefits to Cat-1 bis technology are that it can be used globally, with lower latency, higher bandwidth, and increased longevity over 2G and 3G technologies.

With 2G and 3G being phased out, new technologies are being implemented to support the increasingly massive and/or mission critical networks of IoT devices. LTE-M and NB-IoT have been more widely deployed in North America and China, respectively, and NR-Light (also known as Reduced Capability or RedCap) is still a new technology that hasn’t seen much action in the IoT market yet.

Since Cat-1 bis was introduced in 3GPP’s Release 14 in 2018, ABI Research has identified a growing set of Cat-1 bis modules that are available to view in IoT Cellular Modules Model Tracker (MD-ICM-103). This data shows a significant increase in the number of Cat-1 bis compatible modules released in the past year, begging the question: Is LTE Cat-1 bis finally taking off? Thus far, the UNISOC 8910DM has been the most popular publicly announced chipset used in LTE Cat-1 bis modules.

The soft launch approach has allowed Qualcomm to come to market immediately. The window on creating new LTE chipsets for the IoT is closing as new technologies are being introduced, and any LTE devices based on them would have a limited time to permeate the market before they become obsolete. Some of Qualcomm’s competitors are decidedly not producing LTE Cat-1 bis devices—for example, Sony Semiconductor has recently announced a new LPWA chipset that will most likely take at least two years before it is seen in deployed connected devices. Sony Semiconductor has stated it does not believe in LTE Cat-1 bis and that it is more focused on the future—in this case, LTE-M.

Selecting Eigencomm’s design for its LTE Cat-1 bis chipset benefits both companies as Eigencomm has profited from licensing its IP and as Qualcomm is able to tactically revisit the Cat-1 market. Qualcomm’s last Cat-1 product was the MDM9207 in 2015 that, although in popular use for the IoT today, is showing its age, especially in terms of power efficiency. More recently, Qualcomm’s internal IoT chipset development efforts have been focused on 5G NR (i.e., RedCap).

Natively, Eigencomm could never have sold the EC618 into the North American market as Chinese chips are simply no longer considered secure or acceptable there. It would likely also struggle in Europe where UNISOC has gained acceptance from module vendors and where the French semiconductor company Sequans also launched the Calliope 2 Cat-1 bis chip in late 2021. But licensing by Qualcomm confers all necessary due diligence to engender confidence, just as if it were a Western design. Qualcomm cannot risk its market-leading international IoT reputation by selling insufficiently tested or bad quality products.

 

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