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LTE will create more silicon shake-up, and chances for WiMAX players

16 декабря 2009

The landscape for wireless device chipmakers is changing rapidly. The baseband suppliers have reduced in number, driven by the concentration of handset power in the hands of a few giants. Qualcomm, Infineon and ST-Ericsson are the main survivors, with Broadcom tapping at the door and MediaTek threatening to break out of its low cost Chinese base.

But as phones get more complex, and wireless becomes embedded in a host of other rich devices from smartbooks to e-readers to media players, there are new opportunities for silicon companies to attack the slots around the baseband. So the mobile applications processor market is hotly contested, with Samsung, Nvidia and others vying with the dominant Texas Instruments and the baseband/SoC players - and of course, Intel hovers in the wings too, eyeing the smartphone for x86/Atom, by way of the safer territory of the netbook. Samsung is planning to spend around KRW7 trillion (about $6 billion) on expanding its semiconductor business in 2010, according to a Korea Herald report - most of that may be going on the key DRAM and NAND flash memory lines, but some will certainly boost the mobile processor activities.

At the LTE stage, these shifting sands will result in a more complex web of alliances to address a diversified set of form factors for mobile broadband devices. Qualcomm will still aim to provide everything a device maker could require, with multiple CPUs and graphics processors (GPUs), combined with a widening range of optimized software. But many others will form partnerships to strengthen their hands - perhaps in graphics (especially as more non-graphics functions are offloaded to the GPU), as seen in Intel’s increasing stake in processor IP firm Imagination Technologies; perhaps in LTE, the great hope for several chipmakers that have cut their OFDMA teeth in WiMAX, but know they will need powerful friends to play in LTE, where the market will be dominated by bigger fish.

The WiMAX device silicon business has been very fragmented, and several of the players have recently announced parallel WiMAX/LTE roadmaps, harnessing their experience in the older, but very similar, technology. Sequans, WaveSat, Altair, GCT and Beceem are among those with an LTE plan, though they are all at very different stages in terms of actual products. Altair looks advanced, having a baseband and RF transceiver for nearly all the frequencies and modes supported by the currently fragmented LTE segment. This is now included in a PC card reference platform that can be used for field testing. Eran Eshed, co-founder and head of marketing and business development, does not believe there will be room in the LTE device ecosystem for a new chip start-up, but that a couple of WiMAX players could make it, probably through an acquisition or by providing early stage LTE weapons to a larger baseband provider that would otherwise fall behind the frontrunners, Qualcomm and STE.

He, of course, believes Altair can successfully bridge the WiMAX-to-LTE divide, and it has a common, software defined platform that supports both standards, as well as OFDMA-based XGP (see separate item). The need for operators, and therefore device makers, to integrate legacy and new networks gives smaller chipmakers their opportunity he argues, especially when the strong players in the existing platforms fail, for one reason or another, to develop an LTE offering at an early date. A particularly low hanging fruit might be a partnership with one of the five Chinese silicon vendors that make basebands for TD-SCDMA, none of which, he says, has a viable solution for China Mobile’s migration to TD-LTE. This will be one clear option for an Altair alliance, or for Sequans, which recently gained funding from Motorola and Alcatel-Lucent, largely geared to those firms’ bids to provide TD-LTE kit for China’s proposed network at Shanghai Expo in 2010 (both are working with the French firm, while Huawei has silicon from its own Hi Silicon subsidiary). Altair, which is also participating in those trials, also does not rule out a strategy to ‘help out’ more broadly based baseband/processor makers, such as MediaTek or Marvell (which also have TD-SCDMA, but not TD-LTE) or even Broadcom or Infineon, which have not shown their hand on any substantial LTE assets as yet. Knowledge of the very different ways that OFDM technology works, compared to 3G, could be a valuable short cut for any of these firms in a difficult transition to a new radio world. Eshed also believes that “companies without RF transceiver products will find it extremely difficult to compete in LTE. Such companies could make it in WiMAX as they used RFICs from pure play companies such as Maxim or PMC Sierra. The situation in LTE is completely different, as such RFIC companies understand that this is a game of the large cellular chip companies and will not offer such products to the market.”

Infineon’s likelihood of wanting help from a WiMAX expert may have receded, given a new strategic alliance with Nokia to collaborate on silicon for the next iteration of the LTE standard, LTE Advanced, which will find its way into mainstream devices 8-10 years from now. The agreement highlights the new balance of the handset chip industry. While the biggest manufacturers are increasingly cutting back on developing their own customized designs, in favor of buying off the shelf (hence the radical change in Nokia’s relationship with its former near-monopoly supplier TI), they actually want increased control and differentiation in the emerging technologies. So we have seen Apple acquiring PA Risc and upping its stake in Imagination, possibly with a view to designing its own processor architecture for future iPhones, relegating Samsung from key processor provider to manufacturing partner. And of course, Nokia shook up the whole sector in 2007, and forced TI’s virtual exit from basebands, when it decided to introduce a second source for each category (Infineon for GSM, Broadcom for EDGE, STMicro for 3G). Last year, it extended Broadcom’s reach into low cost 3G device platforms, and added Qualcomm for north America and Intel for the netbooks.

Now it has enhanced Infineon’s role, and the German firm is working with Nokia on LTE Advanced in a strategic development role, of a kind TI used to command, and which the Finnish giant also has, in HSPA+, with ST-Ericsson. The LTE Advanced project could pave the way for extended cooperation in other areas, and possibly a place for Infineon in high end Nokia devices.

The new partnership focuses on developing handset platforms that could deliver gigabit data transfer rates, as required by ‘true 4G’ standards such as WiMAX 2 and LTE Advanced. The collaboration is non-exclusive but Nokia’s first announced R&D in this area, and will center on developing advanced RF transceivers, based on Infineon’s RFICs and closely integrated with Nokia basebands.

The resulting designs could go beyond giving Nokia a headstart in the new generation of LTE after mid-decade, and the work could also be fed into complete modem solutions for HSPA+ and basic LTE. Nokia is increasingly prepared to license out its modem designs for revenue and broad industry influence and will create reference platforms based on its Infineon project.

Infineon did not say how many engineers would work on the project, or what the deadlines are, but indicated that the results would be contributed to the LTE Advanced standards process. “We are grateful to expand our successful collaboration with Nokia beyond our current platform and RF activities,” said Professor Hermann Eul, member of the Infineon management board, in a statement.

“Taking advantage of each company’s expertise as leaders in their respective fields, this cooperation will help to deliver standard-based, industry leading solutions for mobile internet devices,” said Pekka Sarlund, VP of wireless modems at Nokia.

While Infineon is far from out of the woods of its recent financial turmoil, its strongest business has been in its wireless activities, and it has been moving up the smartphone food chain, most famously by getting into the iPhone. The German firm has also scored with its low power, single-chip GSM architecture, as used by Nokia. It first entered the mobile RFIC space 10 years ago shortly after the spin-out from Siemens.

Story by Caroline Gabriel

Источник: 4G Trends

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