Intel Corp. is gaining discernible market share in the LTE chips business, and Qualcomm, the 800-pound gorilla in the mobile baseband market, suddenly looks in Intel’s crosshairs. A closer look at Intel’s journey from a mobile silicon underdog to the owner of a swelling LTE footprint shows that design ingredients like CEVA Inc.’s DSP cores have played a significant role in helping Intel get its baseband act together.
Intel licensed CEVA-XC core for LTE chips back in 2010 at around the same time when it was acquiring Infineon’s wireless business unit. Infineon also used CEVA’s DSP engines in its ARM-based 3G and 4G LTE chips. However, Intel’s licensing deal with CEVA was independent of its pending acquisition of Infineon’s baseband business. After early setbacks, Intel had now started surrounding its Atom system-on-chips (SoCs) with outside ingredients like CEVA soft modems.
Intel first licensed CEVA-XC DSP core back in 2010
Fast forward to 2015, Intel has cobbled a complete cellular portfolio. It is now offering both discrete LTE modems pairing with ARM-based application processors from other chipmakers as well as LTE baseband sockets integrated with its own x86 Atom application processors.
CEVA—after having scored heavy-hitters like Intel and Samsung and snapping up DSP sockets in China’s mobile SoC high-flyers such as HiSilicon, Leadcore, MediaTek and Spreadtrum—now increasingly looks like the ‘ARM of mobile baseband.’ The main chipmaker that doesn’t use CEVA cores at all is Qualcomm. So the fact that Qualcomm’s stronghold on the multi-mode LTE chip market is loosening is a good news for CEVA that designs and licenses cores used by suppliers of mobile baseband chips.
Cellular radio connectivity stack—also known as modem or baseband chip—has been a Qualcomm forte till now. On the other hand, Intel has long been in the shadows while fine-tuning its mobile DSP and baseband strategies. However, the Santa Clara, California–based chip giant remained committed to its long game in the mobile industry, and that endurance is now finally bearing fruit. Intel has finally started to carve out a tangible position in the rapidly growing LTE chips business.
Intel’s Baseband Play in China
Intel has recently scored an important design win in Asustek’s Zenfone 2 handset for the China market. According to Forward Concept’s April 2015 newsletter, Asustek’s smartphone is powered by Intel’s 64-bit Atom quad-core processor and the 5-mode Intel XMM7262 LTE modem. The Cat 4+ modem supports LTE-A, carrier aggregation and FDD and TDD formats for both China and global markets.
Next up, DigiTimes has reported about Rockchip unveiling smartphones and tablets using Intel processors at the Hong Electronics Fair being held on April 13-16, 2015. Intel has been collaborating with the Fuzhou-based Rockchip for jointly developing an SoC labeled as X3-C3230-RK; it comprises of a quad-core Atom application processor, Mali 400 MP4 graphics, and Intel’s 2G/3G/HSPA+ baseband. Intel has also launched two other SoC devices for the low-to-mid range smartphone and phablet markets in China.
Intel has used CEVA DSP engine in 2G/3G modem for the Rockchip SoC
The X3-C3130 device is a slightly less powerful version made up of dual-core 64-bit Atom, Mali 400 MP2 graphics, and 2G/3G/HSPA+ baseband. Then, there is Intel’s X3-C3440 device aiming to budget LTE phones and tablets; it has integrated quad-core 64-bit Atom with Mali T720 MP2 graphics and 2G/3G/TD-SCDMA/FDD/TDD LTE Cat 4 baseband. These Atom x3 SoC devices—part of the Smart or Feature phone with Intel Architecture (SoFIA) family—are aimed for the budget smartphone and tablets. And they use CEVA’s DSP cores in the baseband connectivity stack.
Another prominent highlight of Intel’s rising influence in China’s mobile SoC landscape is its stake in Spreadtrum Communications, one of the leading baseband chip designer from China, who is also licensing CEVA’s DSP cores. Intel can leverage its relationship with Spreadtrum to target entry-level smartphone and tablet vendors in China.
Intel’s LTE Breakout
In December 2104, market research firm Strategy Analytics acknowledged in its update on mobile baseband chip market that Intel is making steady progress in the LTE chips business. It mentioned multiple designs wins at Samsung’s OEM business for its XMM 7260 Category 6 LTE baseband solution. “Intel’s SoFIA 4G chips in 2015 could help further,” the report noted.
Then, at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) floor in March 2015 in Barcelona, Intel introduced the XMM 7360 LTE-CA modem with 3x carrier aggregation and 5-mode capability. The LTE baseband chip, expected to be available in second half of 2015, features up to 450Mbps downlink speed and supports 29 LTE bands.
Intel’s Aicha Evans holds up the 5-mode XMM 7360 modem chip
Intel’s upcoming LTE baseband chip supports LTE Advanced up to Category 10 and rivals Qualcomm in featuring envelope tracking for power efficiency. Moreover, it supports LTE Broadcast, voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) and dual-SIM capabilities.
VentureBeat has recently reported that the iPhone 7 handset expected to be launched in 2016 will use Intel’s LTE baseband chip. Apple currently uses Qualcomm’s baseband chips in the iPhone, and if Intel can win baseband socket in Apple’s iconic smartphone, it will be a major ‘design loss’ for the world’s top baseband chipmaker Qualcomm. The VentureBeat report corroborates on Intel’s increasing clout in the mobile chip business and the fact that it is closing up the technology gap with the market leader Qualcomm.
Majeed Ahmad is author of books Age of Mobile Data: The Wireless Journey To All Data 4G Networksand Essential 4G Guide: Learn 4G Wireless In One Day.Share this post via: