ARM buys Mistbase and NextG-Com to extend its reach in IoT

With expertise in NB-IoT low-power wide-area networking, ARM will extend its reach from smart homes to smart cities

Chip designer ARM has a new strategy for the internet of things: to offer complete solutions "from application software to antenna."

ARM has typically left it to licensees of its microprocessor designs to add their own wide-area radio modems and other circuitry essential for the chips at the heart of smartphones and other connected devices. That's the case with Qualcomm, for example, which packages ARM's processor core with its own LTE modems to deliver the chips at the heart of Apple's iPhones.

But now ARM wants to deliver the whole stack itself, at least for low-power, low-bandwidth devices, ARM wireless business general manager Paul Williamson said in a blog post Tuesday.

To further that goal, the company is investing in its own radio designs, and has acquired two companies with expertise in the NarrowBand-IoT (NB-IoT) low-power wireless standard: a Swedish one, Mistbase, and a British one, NextG-Com. Mistbase designs chips, while NextG-Com writes networking software.

Processors built to ARM's designs require little power, at least compared to the power-hungry chips found in desktop and laptop PCs. That's what made them attractive to smartphone manufacturers.

But phones, especially the latest 4G phones, are still power-hungry compared to many of the devices that make up the internet of things. A smartphone with a 10 watt-hour battery will run for a day or two before needing a recharge, whereas NB-IoT was developed for devices that must run for up to 10 years on a single 5 Wh battery. The trade-off is that NB-IoT devices will only be able to transmit at up to 20 kilobits per second, or perhaps 250 kbps, compared to megabits per second for a typical smartphone.

It's in the market for such devices that ARM sees a big advantage in more closely tying the design of the processor with that of the wide-area radio modem, something it already does for Bluetooth wireless devices.

"In addition to the hardware and software expertise of the acquired companies, we are also investing in radio design that will offer complete NB-IoT chip solutions from application software to antenna. This will cut the complexity of adopting cellular IoT technology," Williamson wrote.

Supporting NB-IoT is already a relatively easy decision for network operators to make. The standard, finalized last year, requires only a small upgrade to the high-speed LTE networks that operators have already invested billions deploying, and opens up a whole new market. Analysts at IHS-Markit forecast that the number of NB-IoT connections will grow from around 1 million this year to 141 million by 2021, Williamson said.

ARM's NB-IoT efforts will fit right into its Cordio range of wireless designs, alongside its support for Bluetooth 5 and the IEEE 802.15.4 personal area networking standard. This, Williamson wrote, allows ARM to extend its reach from the smart home to the smart city.

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