Smart meters to telematics — Altair LTE chipsets see bright future in IoT

Altair Semiconductor develops LTE chipsets for a variety of use cases.  It was the first chipset vendor to receive certification from Verizon Wireless to run on its 4G LTE network. With LTE expected to power innovations like Internet of Things (IoT), Altair sees great opportunities in specific segments like smart meters, smart homes, telematics, surveillance and more.

In a recent interaction with Greentech Lead, Eran Eshed, co-founder of Altair, talks why LTE is gaining relevance in applications like smart meters and how the 4G technology scores over its predecessors.

Eran Eshed - Altair

Why is LTE important in smart meters?

[EE]: Smart meters require two-way communications to the cloud. Thus far most of them were connected by 2G technologies. However, today it is clear that in most markets these older technologies will not last for long, as operators prefer to re-farm their spectrum in favor of much more spectrally efficient technologies, such as LTE. Network longevity in is critical since the business case is built on the assumption that the service will be available for 10-15 years from deployment. If the device needs to be upgraded or replaced, this could have a severe impact on the ROI model.

What are the ROI gains from LTE smart meter technology compared to traditional ones?  

[EE:] LTE has been demonstrated to be over three times more spectrally efficient than 3G, and an order of magnitude more efficient than 2G technologies. This has a linear effect on capacity and hence cost-per-bit for meter communications. This translates to lower operating expenses for utility companies. The common belief is that LTE chipsets and modules are more expensive than 3G and hence a higher upfront investment has to be made in deploying LTE. But this paradigm is quickly shifting, as reduced speed and lower cost LTE chipsets are introduced to the market by Altair and other companies, following standardization of 3GPP aiming at addressing this space. Therefore, in terms of capital expenditure, 3G doesn’t offer any benefits over LTE.

Finally LTE is natively IP based and hence supports a flat and clean network architecture, compatible with the needs of modern IoT systems.

What are your offerings for the “smarter” smart meter market?

[EE:] The LTE community had identified the need for an IoT-solution variant of the standard several years ago. This resulted in a lower-speed/power/cost variant known as LTE-MTC which stands for Machine Type Communications. Altair is one of the first vendors to offer such IoT-optimized LTE chipsets which are ideal, among other applications, for the smart metering market’s needs. Our chipsets are disruptive in their power/size/cost combination, enabling the transition from 2G and 3G to LTE today.

What are the unique features of your products?

[EE:] Smart meters have some fairly unique requirements. One such requirement is the ‘link budget’ of the wireless signal, which essentially means how well the communications link operates under noisy conditions (for example if a meter is located in a basement). Another requirement, which is typical for gas meters, is the need to operate on a small battery for approximately 10 years, which requires an extremely low power consumption profile from the LTE chipset. Altair has designed our chipset with such requirements in mind and offers exceptional performance under both scenarios.

Additionally, our chipsets are based on a novel Software Defined Radio (SDR) architecture, which means that we are able to upgrade modem software after the product is already deployed in the field. This is a very useful capability in the context of smart meters since these meters have a very long life cycle and may need to be upgraded in the future to accommodate for standard changes. Our products remove the need to roll out expensive truck to perform this upgrade, and instead enable it to happen over the air from remote.

What are the major markets for Altair Semiconductors?

[EE:] So far we have shipped products mainly into consumer markets – namely personal computing (tablets, notebooks, Chromebooks, mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, dongles etc.) and fixed broadband access (indoor desktop routers, outdoor units). We have shipped millions of chipsets to such markets in the US, Japan, Europe, China and India. We have decided to expand our portfolio to address IoT and M2M markets where we believe LTE will play pivotal role in verticals such as smart metering, smart homes and security, consumer and professional wearable devices, and car telematics.

Most of the IoT vertical markets mentioned here are new markets for LTE in general and Altair in particular – so far, LTE has only been able to address broadband markets, so this is a fundamental paradigm shift in the wireless industry.

How do you expect the 4G smart meter market to grow in the coming years?

[EE:] Utilities are typically not very agile and fast moving, so we expect to see gradual deployment, starting from markets were LTE is widely deployed, such as in North America and Japan. In Europe the regulatory pressure to deploy smart meters is even stronger; however LTE coverage is less ubiquitous. All in all, we expect to see several tens of millions of LTE smart meters being deployed in the next 4-5 years.

Who are your major clients?

[EE:] Altair’s client base is pretty wide and diverse – we have a number of fortune 500 OEMs in the consumer space, Original Design Manufacturers (ODMs) in the PC space and a variety of module makers that sell products into M2M markets. We expect to further diversify our client based as we enter strategic IoT/M2M markets such as smart metering.

Any new solutions in pipeline?

[EE:] Yes.  We plan on introducing unique solutions ideally suited for the Internet of Things this year.  Stay tuned…

Rajani Baburajan