A Guide to Wireless Modem Chips, First Edition
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Smartphone, tablet, and even laptop PC users want instant access to the Internet-anytime, anyplace, and without wires. Two technologies are the key to this wireless data flow: cellular and Wi-Fi. Cellular data is available almost anywhere, but carriers often restrict the amount of data each user can download. Wi-Fi access is often free and provides unlimited data. Both technologies are becoming ubiquitous in mobile devices.
Cellular-modem chips, also known as thin modems, are paired with application processors in high-end smartphones such as Apple's iPhone and Samsung's Galaxy series. They also power USB dongles and data cards that provide cellular access in tablets and laptops. Nearly 500 million thin modems shipped in 2012, with Qualcomm and Intel leading the way. This report covers HSPA, TD-SCDMA, and LTE products from these leading vendors as well as from Altair, Leadcore, Marvell, Nvidia (Icera), Renesas, Sequans, Spreadtrum, and ST-Ericsson.
Wi-Fi technology is evolving from 802.11n to the new 802.11ac standard. It is most often delivered in a combo chip that may also include Bluetooth, FM, GPS, and even NFC. Qualcomm is the first vendor to integrate Wi-Fi into its application processors, an option that we expect to increase in popularity. More than one billion mobile Wi-Fi chips shipped in 2012, a number that we expect to grow to more than 1.6 billion in 2016. This report covers Qualcomm's integrated Wi-Fi solution as well as mobile Wi-Fi chips from market-leader Broadcom, Marvell, MediaTek, Redpine, and Texas Instruments.
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This report covers both cellular-baseband chips and other wireless connectivity chips, focusing on the wireless "plumbing" that connects mobile devices to the cloud. Generating $20 billion in revenue from shipments of 2.2 billion units in 2012, the cellular-baseband market is vast and growing. This technology is the core of every smartphone as well as a growing number of other mobile devices. We focus on thin modems, which accounted for nearly 500 million cellular-baseband chips in 2012.
Cellular-baseband chips are increasingly matched with other wireless connectivity; almost a billion mobile Wi-Fi chips shipped in 2012, accounting for $3 billion in revenue. By 2015, half of all handsets and all smartphones will include Wi-Fi, so OEMs will favor chip suppliers that can combine multiple wireless connectivity functions (cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, FM, GPS, and NFC) into fewer components to reduce cost and board area.
For thin modems shipping in 2013, the leading chip suppliers will support mobile devices with LTE Category 4 peak data rates (150Mbps on the downlink and 50Mbps on the uplink). Most of these LTE modems will be multimode devices that implement HSPA+ with downlink speeds of up to 21Mbps (or as high as 42Mbps or even 84Mbps with dual carrier). Qualcomm continues to set the standard: its newest thin modems support CDMA, GSM/EDGE, UMTS (WCDMA/HSPA), TD-SCDMA, and LTE (both TDD and FDD).
Even in mobile devices, 802.11n has become the most common form of Wi-Fi. Some vendors are beginning to offer 802.11ac even before that standard is ratified. We see some bifurcation between 1x1 and 2x2 Wi-Fi chips. The latter offer better range and performance, but only tablets are big enough to support two antennas with adequate separation; smartphones are sticking with the lower-cost 1x1 devices.
Functions such as Bluetooth, FM, GPS, and NFC are often integrated into the Wi-Fi chip to form a combo device; Texas Instruments is already shipping a combo with all five functions. Qualcomm has taken an alternative path, integrating connectivity functions into its baseband processors. We expect other baseband vendors to follow suit, putting pressure on third-party Wi-Fi suppliers such as Broadcom.
Qualcomm is the leading vendor of thin modems, supplying Apple's iPhone 4S and iPhone 5, among others. It was the first to target data cards and remains the leading supplier in this segment as well. The company is the leader in bringing new cellular protocols to market, including LTE. By integrating Wi-Fi and GPS into its baseband processors, it can offer a complete cellular and connectivity solution that has a lower cost and smaller board area than that of competing third-party solutions.
Since acquiring Infineon's wireless business, Intel has continued its success in the thin-modem market. Intel supplies Samsung's Galaxy smartphones, where X-Gold is paired with the Exynos processor. The X-Gold chips keep system cost low by integrating power management. Intel has been slow to deploy an LTE solution, but it will begin shipping its first LTE chip in 2013.
Broadcom's business at Apple and Samsung, among others, enabled it to ship over 60% of all Wi-Fi combo chips in 2012. The company has excellent Wi-Fi and GPS technology. The BCM43341 combo will be in production by the beginning of 2013, beating Qualcomm to market with integrated NFC. The company is also pushing ahead with 802.11ac for high-end Wi-Fi devices.
After growing rapidly by serving the low end of the mobile-phone market, MediaTek is now forging into the low-cost smartphone market. Its new four-way Wi-Fi combo chip is well suited to its customers in this market, offering all of the popular connectivity functions at a low cost.
In 2Q13, Marvell expects to ship its newest modem, the PXA1802A, which supports LTE Category 4, HSPA+, and TD-HSPA+. In TDD mode, the PXA1802A delivers China Mobile's fastest data rates. Marvell will also ship in 2Q13 its newest Wi-Fi combo chip, the Avastar 88W8897, which supports 802.11ac 2x2 with data rates up to 867Mbps.
Nvidia's cellular technology has been deployed primarily in data applications, but the company is pushing to include it in smartphones, paired with its Tegra application processor. Unfortunately, the current product is limited to 50Mbps, far slower than other LTE chips.
The vastly unprofitable ST-Ericsson is facing a financial crisis that will come to a head in 2013 as STMicroelectronics withdraws its financial support from the joint venture. ST plans to continue providing foundry services, so ST-Ericsson may be able to move into production with its M7400 LTE modems based on 28nm FD-SOI technology. Although its cellular modems provide competitive performance, the company's Wi-Fi chips lag in both speed and integration.
Texas Instruments will spend 2013 winding down its OMAP and wireless connectivity business in handsets and tablets. The WiLink 8.0 family is a strong product and might be sold to another vendor that serves these mobile customers. It is the sole five-function wireless connectivity chip currently available and is limited only by its lack of an 802.11ac offering.
The mobile-chip business has moved toward a system platform that forces suppliers to offer a complete set of wireless connectivity options if they are to be viable. As semiconductor technology advances and these connectivity options mature, more functions will be integrated, even-tually converging to a single-chip platform.