LAS VEGAS – A number of reputable chip companies, including ST-Ericsson, Renesas Mobile, NVidia, Marvell, have been developing LTE baseband chips for more than a year. So far, there is little to show for it.
All claim they already have their modem chips on the tarmac. But that’s it. No takeoff. Nothing about actual design wins. CES last week was no exception. We heard zilch.
We can certainly blame the virtually non-existent LTE market for that. Except in the U.S., the roll out of LTE has been slow. If you want volume for your modem chips, you need to play not in LTE but the 3G market dominated by Qualcomm, MediaTek, Spreadtrum, Broadcom, Intel and others.
Additional blame goes to Samsung and Apple. The two companies have pretty much sewn up the high-end smartphone market. Samsung designs its own LTE baseband chips while Apple uses Qualcomm’s chips. Not much room is left for anyone else.
But the real story lies in the very nature of a baseband chip, which we in the media apparently don’t appreciate very much.
Developing a functional baseband chip is a never-ending job, according to CEVA CEO Gideon Wertheizer. When it comes to apps processors, chip suppliers know their job is done. It happens when they see tape out. In contrast, baseband chips, after tape-out, need to be tweaked, tested, modified, certified and/or tweaked again before they can move to mass production.
Wertheizer said, “I’ve heard that you’d need to dispatch something like 400 engineers to Samsung in order to have your chip tested in their handsets, certified by different operators and tweaked to work well on different bands, and finally getting designed in.”
Come on. Four hundred? Really?