Silicon Labs has been expanding its footprint in India since the last couple of years. They recently announced a new (and a bigger) office for their India team. What’s driving this change in strategy? What are the plans for the future? Rahul Chopra, Editor, spoke to Matt Johnson, President and CEO, Silicon Labs and Manish Kothari, SVP and Head of India Center, to find out.
Q. How do you define your market? And how’s it been the last couple of years for you and your team?
A. Matt: We focus exclusively on the IoT wireless space, and it’s fascinating for us that this space is growing at a pace we have never seen before. Our market has the potential for growing to 50-60 billion units a year in the next decade, which is incredible. We have never seen anything like that in the semiconductor space. We are the largest company in the world that is dedicated to IoT wireless. We are making good progress. We have doubled the size of the company in the past two years, but we are even more excited about the future. We are in the middle of a really strong product cycle in an industry that is gaining momentum.
Q. How do you define Silicon Labs?
A. Matt: We provide all the requisite low-power wireless technologies for IoT and what they will become in the future. Our solutions comprise a wireless SoC, which includes all the requisite components that someone would need, including computing, security, and all the peripherals. In some cases, ours is the only IC in the design because it is a complete system solution. We also provide the complete software support that goes with it, including all the tools for the developers, and all the services and support as well.
What makes us unique is that we can provide a complete solution through the module and certification for our customers. So, if a customer wants a lot of uniqueness, like hand-holding and high-touch, or a turnkey solution that just works with low or no touch, we can provide all of that.
Q. What is your vision for Silicon Labs?
A. Matt: Our position and momentum is to become what Intel and Qualcomm were for their respective spaces, and we truly have that opportunity. Over a year ago, we divested everything unrelated to our IoT focus, because we saw our market taking off for the next decade and beyond. We wanted to ensure we did not miss the opportunity to be two or three times larger than any other competitor in the space.
Q. Is Wi-Sun a good bet for smart city applications? What about cellular or other wireless options?
A. Matt: It is a tough space for customers to navigate. Cellular is a good option for some classes of applications, but it is also expensive and power-hungry. There is also LoRaWAN as an option. The challenge with LoRaWAN is that it is a closed standard, with licensing fees for users. This limits the scalability of LoRaWAN and is part of the reason I said no to this space for a long time as there was nothing open.
So, there is a big gap out there for electrical distribution, metering, etc kind of applications, where you may need many nodes which can operate in a mesh network or framework and work through each other and have a super-long battery life, sometimes up to 10 years. That implies years of operating openly, with industry-leading security. That is a unique combination of features which were not supported by any device, till now.
At the risk of sounding biased, I believe we have cracked it. Our chipset, FG25, supports Wi-SUN and is currently being sampled in our Alpha program. We have more interested customers than we have slots in the program, and they are waiting for their turn to move into it. This shows the demand for, and interest, in this space. The Wi-SUN momentum over the last two or three years has accelerated and not slowed down at all. So, when you step back and say, well, what happened? Why isn’t 5G moving faster? I think it will, as we said, but this type of solution hits a sweet spot in the market where major growth is occurring. There was nothing that truly served this and hit all those checkboxes, but this one does.
Q. How do you see the evolution of 5G? Is that a potential threat or do you consider it an enabler?
A. Matt: We consider it an enabler and an important component of IoT. To understand it, let us pick smartphones or the handset space, which were born and rely on cellular, but they also support multiple other wireless technologies, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and others. The IoT will be no different. We’re capable of doing and providing a solution that can support wireless, up to three kilometers, and can operate on a watch battery or coin cell battery for 10 years. Some of these applications need hundreds of thousands of end nodes. Cellular battery life is measured in days or maybe weeks, and we are talking about a battery that could run for about a year.
There is a whole set of devices that sit on the true edge that would never be possible without this type of cost and power battery life that we can bring. Cellular can connect a lot of little devices to a longer-range network. It’s a very symbiotic relationship and has moved a lot slower in 5G and IoT than people thought or expected. Low-power wireless technologies, such as Thread, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, have just exploded in the IoT space, but we have been able to double our size over the last couple of years because our adoption strategy was strong. I do expect 5G to play a bigger role over time, but it won’t be a majority role for sure. It would be very complimentary.