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Who will be “lucky dog” in 4G LTE basebands?

Who will be “lucky dog” in 4G LTE basebands?
by Don Dingee on 09-19-2014 at 5:00 pm

The official term is “beneficiary rule”, but among colorful racing broadcasters, drivers, and fans it is more commonly referred to as the “lucky dog”: the driver who is down a lap, but gets to advance to the lead lap by virtue of being farthest ahead when a caution flag is raised.

 Qualcomm has lapped the entire field when it comes to cellular baseband chipsets, holding 66% market share according to the latest figures from Strategy Analytics. That figure includes both 3G and 4G designs, and a range of ASPs. For 4G LTE, Qualcomm Gobi has grabbed a significant lead in a field that is growing by some 53% in unit shipments annually, again citing Strategy Analytics.

Some folks have gone as far as to say the 4G LTE baseband race is over. Qualcomm has won, with a 20nm part. Done. Adding fuel to that fire was Broadcom’s notice in June they would “explore strategic alternatives for cellular baseband business”, code for shutting down $700M in R&D and ceasing to chase design wins from the back of the pack.

In between those extremes are several companies still racing, with MediaTek and Marvell and NVIDIA somewhere in the pack, along with three other companies all featuring CEVA DSP technology under the hood:

Spreadtrum is well positioned, with release of the SC9620 and design wins at Lenovo and Coolpad. It is hard to get much detail on the SC9620 itself from the Spreadtrum website or other sources, but let’s assume it is fairly competitive. As a domestic vendor in an exploding Chinese market, Spreadtrum stands to gain rapidly as 4G LTE starts ramping up there this year.

Wait, this year? Lest anyone think China is behind in technology, one piece of interesting analysis suggests that their delayed 4G rollout was a maneuver to break the “monopoly” of Qualcomm (and Apple and Samsung, by association), and give domestic handset and chipset firms a chance to catch up. That same article also sets up the brewing debate between LTE-FDD, used globally, and LTE-TDD used by China Mobile.

TD-LTE, aka LTE-TDD, may be the caution flag everyone was looking for to make up a lap.

Now those “delays” at Intel in releasing the XMM 726x chipsets become much more intriguing. I read all the bashing about 65nm this and TSMC-not-Intel-fab that, but the real issue here is developing a chipset capable of not only TD-LTE but all the other standards needed for world markets. Getting the XMM 7262 certified on China Mobile is a bigger deal than one might expect. Intel swings a pretty large brand in China, too.

Then, there is Samsung with the Exynos ModAP. Again, they have been diligently working to get everything needed – including Release 9 of 3GPP, LTE FDD and TDD, and 3G modes – all in one chip. Of note is the asterisk, that ModAP is only available in custom ASIC form, presumably again related to markets and certifications.

One thing that jumps out in all this is both Samsung and Spreadtrum are still talking 4G LTE Cat 4, where Intel and Qualcomm are up at Cat 6 speeds. I’d say at this point, among the non-Qualcomm contenders, it is advantage Intel; they may be the lucky dog when racing gets underway for real with the Chinese market fully engaged.

What should also be evident in this discussion is the carriers call the shots – there is no such thing as a “global standard”. It is impossible to just say one has a generic 4G LTE phone or baseband chipset, and waltz into every market expecting to take over. Ask Broadcom how hard that really is.

The same effect that Qualcomm used to box out most other chipset vendors in North America, right down to discouraging integrated SoCs from other sources and forcing SKU swapouts for baseband chips compatible with carrier networks, is being deployed in reverse in China to level conditions. The current list of contenders will not be forced out so easily.

I’d suggest we hang on to the 4G LTE cellular baseband trophy for a bit.

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