Qualcomm announces first 5G NR IoT modem for high-performance IIoT use cases (Analyst Angle)
On the inauguration day of China Tech day, Qualcomm announced the first 5G-NR IoT modem Qualcomm 315. This is a purpose-built modem for gigabit-class, high-performance Industrial IoT (IIoT) use cases, directly addressing the immediate market need for higher speeds, capacity, and efficiency.
Many often wrongly equate 5G IoT to much-publicized, and over-used applications such as remote-controlled surgeries. Those use cases, called “Mission Critical Services” are the holy grail of 5G IoT, and efforts are on in terms of standardization, prototyping, etc., to make them a reality. However, when you look at the real needs of the IoT market, especially IIoT, they are not as glamorous, yet extremely important, high-value, and immediate.
5G IoT markets and use cases
One can divide the 5G IoT use cases into two groups. The first group requires relatively lower data speeds (few kbps to Mbps), extended coverage, extremely long battery-life (measured in years), lower complexity and cost. Utility metering, environmental sensing are good examples of such services. These use cases are currently being addressed by Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) technologies such as LTE-M (aka eMTC) and NB-IoT. These technologies were introduced in LTE, but are designed to be forward compatible with 5G, meaning even when the networks are upgraded from LTE to 5G, these devices will seamlessly connect to the new network. There might be 5G-NR versions of these technologies in the future, but as such, there is no current business or technical need.
Side Note: If you would like to learn more about LPWA technologies, check our reports here.
The second group of use cases, on the contrary, requires higher performance, higher bandwidth, and speeds (10s and 100s of Mbps to 1 Gbps), higher capacity, longer battery life, high reliability, and ability to withstand harsh environmental conditions. Some examples of these use cases include factory automation and untethering, industrial and enterprise routers, video surveillance, asset protection & management, robotics, agricultural automation, industrial drones, signages, etc.
5G IoT modem built for high-performance industrial use cases
Qualcomm 315 is purpose-built for high-performance IIoT use cases. A closer look at its capabilities checks all the boxes in the list of most needed features for this market.
Qualcomm 315’s gigabit-bit peak speed is ideal for use cases such as industrial routers, video surveillance cameras in construction sites, etc. Its high capacity meets the demands of retail stores, warehouses, etc., where lots of users and devices need to be connected simultaneously. Its thermally efficient design means it can maintain its high performance even in extreme temperatures without throttling down. All these features make Qualcomm 315 well suited for most high-performance use cases, be it indoors, outdoors, or harsh industrial conditions.
The new modem seems to be well optimized for cost as well, and that is achieved by reducing complexity. For example, support for only Sub-6 GHz bands, and not mmWave might seem surprising to some, considering the media coverage around mmWave. But it is a smart tradeoff because most of the current industrial use cases do not need multiple gigabits of speed mmWave provides. Also, there is some time before mmWave coverage can reach outside the urban areas into the industrial enclaves. This modem only supports Stand-Alone mode (SA) of 5G and not the Non-Stand Alone (NSA) mode. The latter would have needed support for dual connectivity which requires two sets of radios, which increases cost. The integrated RF Front End makes the overall footprint smaller and costs lower as well.
Keeping in mind the needs of the ecosystem that is looking to transition 4G LTE to 5G, Qualcomm 315 has pin-to-pin compatibility with legacy modules and supports all of Qualcomm’s IoT software and toolchain. Additionally, it has a slew of security features and comes with extended hardware and software maintenance support, which are key requirements of any IIoT solution.
One question that many might ponder is, why bring a new modem, why not modify Qualcomm’s X65 for IoT? Well, as explained, there are stark differences between the needs of IIoT and Smartphone markets: 10-15 years long life cycle, vs. two to threes years, ability to support ( or not) extremely high peak speeds and capabilities such as 4k video for marketing and consumer applications, the total cost of ownership and other considerations. As evident, the design points are vastly different, and hence it makes perfect sense to build a modem designed ground-up for IIoT.
Target markets and IIoT future
Considering the timing and the venue of the announcement of Qualcomm 315, and the ecosystem support, the target markets are pretty apparent— China, and Europe in the near term, followed by the USA. And that jibes pretty well with the 5G network deployments as well.
China has one of the largest deployments of 5G and is keenly interested in the SA mode. The large industrial base and the Chinese government’s intense focus on 5G would make it a hotbed for 5G IoT and a lucrative market for Qualcomm 315. Europe, being the base of large industrial conglomerates, is looking at IIoT as a major 5G opportunity. Germany is at the forefront, allocating dedicated spectrum for private networks to accelerate 5G IIoT. The USA, being a 5G leader is a natural target market as well.
The slew of endorsements Qualcomm315 has gotten from market leaders across the IIoT ecosystem, including module vendors as well as IIoT players, shows that there is a captive market for such a product. In fact, the leading module vendor Quectel announced products based on the modem on the same day!
Now, coming back to those fancy use cases like remote surgery, it is a long, systematic process to achieve that goal (Mission Critical Services). The first seeds were sowed last year with the finalization of 3GPP Rel. 16. More work is underway as part of Rel. 17. There have already been lots of interesting proof-of-concept demos and announcements. The industry is diligently and enthusiastically marching towards the goal. When those technologies are ready to be commercialized, the products will be developed for different design and price points than Qualcomm 315 or LPWA modems. More on that in my future articles. So, be on the lookout!
Meanwhile, for more articles like this, and for an up-to-date analysis of the latest mobile and tech industry news, sign-up for our monthly newsletter at TantraAnalyst.com/Newsletter, and listen to our Tantra’s Mantra podcast.