In 2014, Nordic Semiconductor was working out the next step in its Internet of Things (IoT) strategy. Meanwhile, the high-tech workforce of Oulu, in Finland’s north, was dusting itself down after a round of rationalization by silicon vendors.
In parallel, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a collaboration of telecoms standard associations, was finalizing
a specification that extended modem categories to include LTE products for low power IoT applications.
Nordic built its reputation on proprietary ultra low power wireless connectivity and in 2010, Nordic’s expertise in this technology became part of the core specification for Bluetooth 4.0, a new version of the popular short-range RF open standard which included a Low Energy element. Later, Nordic’s nRF51 Series Bluetooth LE solutions found favour with thousands of manufacturers of IoT solutions, such as smart lights and smart locks, across the globe.
Over 200 engineers turned up, including Juha Heikkilä, a veteran 3G and 4G LTE engineer who had started his career with Nokia. When Nokia dropped out of cellular modem design in 2010, selling its assets to Renesas, Heikkilä went too. The pattern was repeated when Broadcom bought Renesas’ modem business for $164 million in 2013. In mid-2014, Broadcom decided to focus its investment elsewhere and closed the Oulu plant leaving Heikkilä looking for a new challenge.
“I’d been responsible for running 3G and 4G-modem design teams for years,” explains Heikkilä. “I was joined by four similarly-qualified colleagues at the recruitment event. We quickly realized that if Nordic was truly ambitious about its IoT strategy it needed to consider a long-range but low power wireless area network [LPWAN] solution to complement its Bluetooth LE products by enabling Cloud connectivity. Cellular technology was a perfect option.”
It turned out that Nordic and Heikkilä’s group had been thinking along similar lines about cellular IoT. Nordic’s senior management backed development of an LTE-based product line for IoT applications. By January 2015, Heikkilä, newly installed as Nordic’s Finland General Manager and reporting to Nordic’s CTO, Svein-Egil Nielsen, had assembled a team of 60 Finnish LTE experts and opened a dedicated Nordic office in Oulu. (The headcount today has risen to 165 of which all are engineers bar two administration staff.)
Vision into reality
LTE modems present big engineering challenges to design, put into production, and certify. The magnitude of the challenges makes cellular a business only a few companies can afford. In January 2015, the number of global teams that were capable
of designing a high-end LTE modem could be counted on the fingers of one hand. One of those teams now worked for Nordic.
While LTE-M and NB-IoT modems are simpler than high-end, high data-throughput cellular units, there’s no getting away from the requirement for extensive LTE expertise when designing such products. According to Heikkilä, the expertise is even more vital for the lower category products because everything has to be highly-optimized to meet the constraints dictated by the specification.
One of the specification’s constraints is power consumption; the modems must be designed to run from small batteries for long periods. This is where Nordic’s Trondheim R&D team’s decade of experience in minimizing the power consumption of Nordic’s Bluetooth LE SoCs came into play. This experience, explains Heikkilä, compressed the project timescales. “We would have got there in the end,” he says, “but without that in-house expertise
it would have taken much, much longer and diverted resources away from the critical and intensive RF design.”
However, as a company new to the carriers and integrators some questions were raised about Nordic’s ability to make the grade. But once the heritage of the Finnish cellular engineering team working for Nordic became clear, those doubts evaporated.
“The nRF91 Series integrates radio, application processor, Flash and RAM memory, and power management on the same die.
This level of integration pushes the envelope of high volume, high-yield silicon production.”
The success of the nRF91 Series will see Finland’s cellular heritage — an essential foundation of the five billion smartphones now in circulation —live on as a key enabler of tomorrow’s IoT.