LAS VEGAS--Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) remains the market leader by far in the cellular baseband market, and in LTE chips in particular. However, its chipset rivals made clear this week at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show that they are intent on using 2014 to close the gap on Qualcomm when it comes to LTE.
According to research firm Strategy Analytics, Qualcomm, MediaTek, Intel, Spreadtrum and Broadcom captured the top-five revenue share spots in the cellular baseband processor market in the third quarter of 2013. Qualcomm maintained its dominance with 66 percent revenue share, followed by MediaTek with 12 percent revenue share and Intel with 7 percent share. However, according to Strategy Analytics analyst Sravan Kundojjala, Qualcomm has around 95 percent of revenue share in the LTE baseband segment, thanks in part to the $14 billion in research and development the company has spent over the last four years.
Despite those leads, Qualcomm's competitors are not standing still and are doing everything they can to catch up. In interviews with FierceWireless at CES, executives from rival companies said they are seeing momentum on LTE and expect to increase that in 2014.
The competition will become more fierce and urgent as more carriers around the world roll out LTE, thus driving demand for LTE phones.
Hermann Eul, vice president and general manager of Intel's Mobile and Communications Group, said Intel is now the No. 2 chipset vendor in terms of shipping LTE chips. He noted that "obviously it's a very sophisticated technology" but that Intel is "loading more design wins on that platform."
"We are working full steam ahead," he said. In August Intel purchased a unit of Fujitsu, called Fujitsu Semiconductor Wireless Products, a specialist in RF transceiver technology, in a bid to increase its LTE and overall mobile expertise. Intel started shipping its first multimode LTE modems in October. Eul said that Intel's XMM 7260 modem, which will deliver LTE Advanced features such as carrier aggregation, will be in "commercial devices" in first half of 2014.
For its part, MediaTek unveiled its first multimode LTE chipset this week, the MT6290. Mohit Bhushan, MediaTek's vice president and general manager of U.S. corporate marketing, said that in the U.S. MediaTek is going take its LTE chips "through all of the carrier labs in the first half [of 2014] so they can flow through the market in the second half." MediaTek's first LTE devices will have standalone modems, but the company is sampling integrated chips that combine modems and applications processors in the first half of this year.
Broadcom has made significant strides on LTE, especially after it acquired LTE-related assets from affiliates of Renesas in September. Broadcom's M320 dual-core LTE System-on-a-Chip will be shipping in at least one Samsung phone in the first quarter, though the companies aren't releasing details. The chip supports LTE Cat 4, with speeds of up to 150 Mbps. Bob Rango, executive vice president of Broadcom's mobile and wireless group, said the company is not yet ready to announce other customers but is "definitely engaged" with them. He said that the chip is backwards compatible to support any network in the world except for CDMA and TD-SCDMA.
Rango said Broadcom will differentiate itself in the LTE market by bringing "a tremendous suite of complementary technologies." He noted that Broadcom can support different Wi-Fi usage models, and that its GPS chips, which are all part of the single SoC, are more advanced than others since they use multiple satellite constellations.
Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang has said the first products with Nvidia's Tegra 4i chipset, which combines the company's application processor with an LTE modem, will be rolling into the market in the first half of next year, but likely will not be aimed at the U.S. market, at least initially. Sridhar Ramswamy, senior technical marketing manager at Nvidia, said that the company is "making good progress" on LTE, with more announcements likely coming at the Mobile World Congress trade show in February.
"We are never going to be at the level of Qualcomm," he said. "We have to take baby steps. As long as we get one or two deigns initially and prove that it will be successful, it can be a stepping stone."
Qualcomm, for its part, acknowledged the competition, but said it will stay ahead of rivals. "A very similar situation occurred in 3G," said Peter Carson, senior director of product marketing for Qualcomm Gobi. "A large number of chipset vendors came out with products or proposed products (in 3G). One thing that is common is that, for those who are not executing, the bar keeps getting higher and higher."
Carson said 3GPP is currently working on LTE Release 13 specs (Release 11 features will hit the market this year). "One unique thing about wireless is you need to be backwards compatible," he said, and for those companies that are late to the game on LTE, they now have to implement past features but optimize them for reduced chip sizes, power, spectral efficiency and more.
Qualcomm wants LTE deployed on unlicensed spectrum
Nvidia not targeting Tegra 4i - chip with LTE modem - at U.S. market initially
Intel ships multimode LTE modem, unveils LTE module
Analyst: Intel's new multimode LTE chip won't make Qualcomm sweat - this year
Intel buys Fujitsu RF unit to beef up LTE expertis
Correction, Jan. 10, 2014: This article incorrectly stated which organization is working on LTE Release 13; it is 3GPP, not Qualcomm. The article also incorrectly stated which LTE Release features will hit the market in 2014; they are Release 11 features, not Release 10.