TOKYO ( ChipWire) -- Intel Corp. and Mitsubishi Electric Corp. announced here today that they will collaborate on a new chip set for so-called third-generation (3G) phones based largely on semiconductor technology from Intel.
The deal secures hands-on experience with a big customer for Intel's infant wireless-chip division, and guarantees a spot for it in the emerging 3G phone market. Mitsubishi will tap Intel's StrongARM, flash and DSP technologies for its 3G phones, and has obtained the right to make the components itself and seek new sources of supply.
Officials at a press conference here gave few details of the deal, and said certain areas are still under negotiation. It's unclear whether any money changed hands, and company representatives were unwilling to talk specifically about technology exchanges.
Michio Nakanishi, group president for the communications systems group at Mitsubishi, said the chip set will be ready by 2002 -- too late for the first wave of 3G phones based on the W-CDMA standard, which will surface in Japan next spring. But an executive with Intel's Japanese subsidiary said the date of the introduction has not been determined.
Aside from the fact that it will be based on Intel's StrongARM processor, little is known about the baseband chip set architecture or how it will be partitioned. But the architecture may be a moving target given the fractious communications standards in use around the world. Intel and Mitsubishi officials said there will be no one-size-fits-all solution for 3G phones, and said they will probably have to come out with tailor-made chip sets based on the market and the communication standards in use. They will also need to develop chip sets for dual-mode phones, known as 2.5-generation phones.
According to the two companies, the North American market is now converging around the GSM1900, TDMA and cdma2000 standards. Meanwhile, Europe accommodates GSM900/1800, GPRS/Edge and UMTS. In Japan, PDC is the dominant cellular standard, but that country is expected to make a transition to W-CDMA next year. In China, the focus is on GSM900/1800.
"Equipment companies, carriers and government regulators have vested interests, and that's why we have the mess we have today," said John Antone, executive vice president and deputy general manager of Intel K.K. in Japan. "It is converging, but not at the rate users would like."
Mitsubishi has apparently sidestepped its internally developed semiconductors, even though the company's chip operations have been making cellular phones a strong emphasis. Mitsubishi is doubling its production capacity of flash memory for cell phones this year, and recently licensed the ARM processor core and TeakLite DSP core. It's also a big supplier of SRAMs for cellular phones, and of multichip packages and embedded processors.
Nakanishi stressed the need for Mitsubishi to have several suppliers for the chip set it will develop with Intel, and said Mitsubishi's chip division will serve as a second source. In addition, Mitsubishi may seek a third supplier to help it keep up with demand from the growing cellular phone market, which expects to see unit shipments increase from 25 million in fiscal year 2000 to 60 million units in fiscal year 2003, he said.
Intel will also be free to sell the chip set to other phone manufacturers. Mitsubishi "will be looking for multiple sources and we will be looking for multiple customers," Antone said.
It is not yet clear how Intel and Mitsubishi will work out any second-sourcing agreements or which components may be involved. Antone said the second-sourcing deals won't necessitate the issuance of product licenses by Intel, but rather may be covered under general cross-licensing agreements. Such agreements are common in the semiconductor industry, and allow companies to reverse engineer certain aspects of another company's product so that they are compliant with specifications but do not infringe on the original manufacturer's patents.
Intel highlighted its flash memory as an integral part of chip set for mobile phones. Intel's flash memory is based on NOR technology, while Mitsubishi's uses a variant of NOR called DiNOR. A Mitsubishi spokesman said the second sourcing of Intel's flash memory technology is one option now on the table at Mitsubishi.
Another aspect of the chip set will be its digital signal processing circuitry, which Antone hinted would come from Intel's side. Intel is expected to announce later this year a 16-bit fixed-point DSP that is being jointly designed with Analog Devices Inc. Last year, Intel bought DSP Communications Inc., a company that has some key design wins with Japanese cellular phone makers.