The small-cell base station market is getting bigger

Cavium Networks recently announced its Octeon Fusion “Baseband-on-a-Chip” cellular infrastructure family, initially addressing carrier-centric picocells. The small-cell base station family is scalable from 32 to 300 users. The initial CNF7120, due to ship next quarter, addresses 10/20 MHz LTE or 3G and is based on two MIPS64 cores at 1 GHz (from its multicore heritage) and four baseband cores (from its Wavesat acquisition). Beefing up its Tensilica-based baseband DSP capabilities, multiple accelerators are provided for heavy-lifting tasks (like FFT, Viterbi, and turbo coding). Future family members will scale up to 2x 20 MHz LTE/LTE-A/3G with carrier aggregation. The future CNF7280 will employ six CPU cores at 2 GHz and eight DSP cores. The company provides a complete L1-L3 software suite with the chip. As might be expected, Cavium is working with a tier 1 customer for initial shipments. General sampling will likely be in the first half of 2012.

Cavium joins Freescale, Mindspeed, and Texas Instruments in the small-cell base station market, but other chip houses will likely announce competing products over the next several months.

Apple’s iPhone 4S boosts Qualcomm

The world waited with bated breath to learn of Apple’s next iPhone, and the iPhone 4S emerged. I explained last May that it would not be an LTE phone, and I was proven right (www.fwdconcepts.com/dsp050211.htm). The “World Phone” capability is available for both Verizon and AT&T subscribers for roaming outside of the U.S., a capability provided by Qualcomm’s MDM6610 baseband chip and RTR8605 multi-band/multi-mode RF transceiver. This combo also provides CDMA capability for Verizon’s network, but is simply excess baggage on AT&T’s HSPA network. The earlier iPhone 4 for Verizon also employed Qualcomm’s CDMA baseband chips while the iPhone 4 for AT&T employed Intel/Infineon HSPA baseband and RF chips. Now, Qualcomm is the only baseband/RF transceiver provider for the 4S. The good news for Apple is that they don’t have to worry about multiple suppliers and multiple manufacturing lines for the two carriers. This approach paves the way for Qualcomm’s baseband and RF chips to be designed in the LTE-capable iPhone 5 when it becomes available next year.

Motorola’s own LTE chips in Droid Bionic

Motorola’s LTE Droid Bionic, like all of the other LTE phones currently available, employs a single-mode LTE modem (of Motorola’s own design) along with a Qualcomm CDMA chip necessary for voice and 3G fallback. No doubt this is the same LTE chip complement in the new (and retrofitted) XOOM tablets. There are still no multimode LTE/3G/2G baseband chips actually shipping, although a few have been announced.

Since Motorola has its own HSPA/EDGE/GSM 3G software stacks (earlier licensed to Freescale), the company could roll out an LTE Droid Bionic with a “World Modem” (read: GSM heritage) capability for Europe and elsewhere…with or without Qualcomm.

ST-Ericsson ships first NovaThor for TD-SCDMA

China Mobile has launched the HTC Sensation Z710t handset featuring ST-Ericsson’s Nova A9500 dual-core Cortex-A9 application processor, running at 1 GHz, and ST-Ericsson’s Thor M6718 TD-HSPA/EDGE modem. Sampling of the more exciting LTE multimode Thor M7400 modem began in Q2, but we’re still waiting for a cellphone socket to be announced.

Spreadtrum claims 50 percent of TD-SCDMA baseband market

Shanghai-based Spreadtrum announced in October that its TD-SCDMA customers now include more than 30 manufacturers and design houses that have introduced more than 72 feature phone and smartphone models in 2011 using its baseband solutions. The company’s CEO announced that “Spreadtrum now commands more than 50 percent market share of TD-SCDMA shipment volumes.” The company’s TD-SCDMA/EDGE/GPRS/GSM basebands are based on DSP cores licensed from CEVA and are now shipping in 40 nm chips.

Marvell becomes latest LTE baseband supplier

Marvell Semiconductor, Inc. has announced what they claim to be the “Industry’s First Single-chip World Modem,” the PXA1801. The multimode baseband chip is said to support FDD-LTE, TDD-LTE, HSPA+, TD-SCDMA, and EDGE. Marvell has been a significant supplier of TD-SCDMA basebands for the Chinese market (see below), so I suspect this product is from the company’s thousand-man Shanghai design center. No pricing or technical details have been released and no date for sampling has been announced at press time. Of particular interest will be the chip’s architecture and power consumption.

Marvell showcases its TD-SCDMA portfolio

Last week, at Beijing’s PT/EXPO COMM CHINA 2011, Marvell displayed TD-SCDMA smartphones that employ its current chipset offerings, which include:

  • PXA920 – Industry’s first single-chip TD solution with integrated application processor (ARM v5 architecture at 806 MHz, 720p video, and 3D graphics) featuring support for both TD-SCDMA and GSM/EDGE. It’s now shipping in more than 10 devices
  • PXA918 – An entry-level single-chip TD solution featuring 55 nm technology and a 624 MHz application processor
  • PXA920H – Designed for mid- and high-end smart devices featuring 55 nm technology, a 1 GHz application processor, and support for 720p video and 250 Mpps 3D graphics
  • PXA1202 – The industry’s first Downlink Dual Carrier (DLDC) TD-HSPA+ modem which can help achieve a 4x data rate increase on TD-SCDMA networks. Featuring 40 nm technology, the PXA1202 also supports 64QAM and TS0 enhancement technologies

Broadcom’s NetLogic acquisition: My take

In mid-September, Broadcom announced that it was acquiring NetLogic Microsystems. The $3.7 billion price is said to be the fourth largest chip acquisition in the past five years, and the second largest this year to Texas Instruments’ acquisition of National Semiconductor. NetLogic itself has been on an acquisition binge, recently acquiring Optichron, Inc. (a provider of digital predistortion chips for base station amplifiers) and then merging with RMI Corporation (formerly Raza Microelectronics Inc.). RMI (a MIPS Technologies licensee) had earlier acquired SandCraft and AMD’s low-power Alchemy MIPS chip product line. With all of the acquired MIPS expertise and low-power MIPS architecture, Broadcom could pair it with its worthy VideoCore graphics/video processor for competition with the world of ARM-based application processors. It could work!

From a macro business standpoint, the acquisition provides Broadcom with a strong position in the IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) market, necessary for the future all-IP (packet-based) LTE infrastructure market. The acquisition also considerably expands Broadcom’s communications product portfolio.

The acquisition also puts the focus on NetLogic competitor, Cavium (mentioned above). Potential acquirers for Cavium are said to be Intel, Marvell, or Qualcomm. With cash hoards that are not being used for hiring binges, acquisitions could make a lot of sense.

Windows 8 on ARM?

At Microsoft’s BUILD Windows conference in mid-September, Windows 8 was formally introduced. All of the developers attending were given Samsung tablets running Win8. However, those tablets were all based on Intel’s Core i5 chips, not ARM. So, the question arises, when will Windows 8 finally appear on ARM processors?

Meanwhile, Intel in JV with Google to port Android to x86

At the Intel Developer’s Forum (IDF) in September, Intel announced that they and Google will jointly tune Android code at the kernel and driver level so future Android versions work with Intel-based smartphones and tablets. At IDF, Intel showed working units of a smartphone with Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) and a tablet with Android 3.0 (Honeycomb). Both of the devices ran on an Intel “Medfield” Atom chip. Of course, the 32 nm Medfield has not won the power consumption battle with ARM, so presumably the future Android versions are targeted for 22 nm Atoms. But, aren’t 22 nm ARMs on its roadmap, too?

Cellphone core chip trends

Because several companies expressed interest in a more focused report covering only the core chips that enable a cellphone, Forward Concepts has published a subset of its “Cellular Handset & Chip Market ‘11” report (which is available www.fwdconcepts.com/Cellchip11). The new focused report, “Cellphone Core Chip Trends” provides an in-depth market analysis of baseband, application processor, RF, and power management chips. The study estimates 2010 market shares of chip vendors by air interface (as applicable), and forecasts each chip type in units, average selling price, and revenue through 2015. The 281-page report is provided only in PDF format and is available for $3,850, including an enterprise-wide license. Details are at www.fwdconcepts.com/cellcore.

As always, I invite your comments.

Will Strauss, President & Principal Analyst wis@fwdconcepts.com