Nvidia catching up to Qualcomm

Nvidia continues to make up for lost time when it comes to producing an integrated processor/modem platform for smartphones, chasing after Qualcomm's stronghold. The company has already upgraded the radio element of its Tegra 4i all-in-one chip, before that has even come to market commercially, and is now promising Category 4 LTE support, which means downlink speeds up to 150Mbps.
The company was demonstrating the beefed-up Tegra 4i at the CTIA show this week, going up against rivals which have also announced Cat-4 products, such as Qualcomm itself, Broadcom and LTE-only specialist Altair.
Handset makers are increasingly looking for integrated platforms, even for high end models, to save on cost, power consumption and internal space. Chip suppliers on both sides – baseband specialists and processor-only vendors – have been racing to fill in their missing pieces and chase the integrated leaders, notably Qualcomm.
Nvidia did this by acquiring UK software defined modem innovator Icera, whose technology has already been implemented alongside its parent's Tegra app processor in handsets from ZTE. However, it becomes far more strategic in the Tegra 4i, a fully integrated offering.
The US company said Icera's software defined architecture was showing its full value as it had allowed an upgrade to Cat-4 in firmware alone. Operators are stepping up the pressure on chip and device makers to supply this capability, as they get ready to upgrade their networks to support 150Mbps speeds.
“It's a bit disappointing that the device ecosystem is not moving as fast as the network,” Mansoor Hanif, director of network integration and LTE at UK market leader EE, said in a recent interview. EE will make the move to 150Mbps speeds this year, and will implement carrier aggregation, an important element of the LTE-Advanced family of updates.
“We have an opportunity to be one of the first operators in the world to roll out carrier aggregation," he said, adding that EE would work with fellow LTE-A supporters such as NTT DoCoMo to drive the device ecosystem.
DoCoMo will also support 150Mbps and carrier aggregation this year, and SK Telecom in Korea is already rolling out these capabilities. And Australia's Telstra, which loves to shine in the high speed network race, is also taking a lead via its Hong Kong unit, CSL. The cellco has switched on additional 2.6-GHz spectrum to enable it to upgrade to 150Mbps download speeds this summer and now provides 2x20MHz in the band, having added an extra 5MHz.
The firm also unveiled a Category 4 Wi-Fi personal router, available with plans from HK$299 (€29.95) a month for 7Gbytes of data.
While Category 4 modems are not LTE-Advanced in themselves (despite the marketing claims of their suppliers, Category 6, at 300Mbps, is the first official LTE-A generation), they do connect to networks implementing LTE-A features like CA.
However, early movers in Category 4 devices will not find a mass market until well into 2014, as most operators will not make this upgrade within the next 12 months. However, given smartphone design and sales cycles, OEMs will be stepping up the demand for modems so they can develop their high speed gadgets in time for the rush, when it comes.