March 21, 2012 - Forward Concepts Wireless/DSP Newsletter

by Will Strauss


Mobile World Congress Afterthoughts

MWC'12 in Barcelona ended the first day of March and had record attendance of 67,000 from 205 countries, of which probably half could be counted as company executives and included some 3,500 CEOs.  Unlike some U.S. conferences, almost all of the attendees wore dark suits with ties (yes, there were a few women executives appropriately dressed, too).

Clearly, the hit of the show was Nokia's 808 PureView camera/cellphone.  With a 41 Mpixel sensor that can capture 4x zoom in full HD 1080p the pixel count was mind-bending. But not to worry on eating up a month's data plan with a single picture, since the default image setting is 5 MP with a 3x lossless zoom.  But wait, as the TV pitchman says, there's more. 

The company also introduced the stunning Nokia 610, which provides a high-end Windows Mobile 7 smartphone experience for the mid-to-low-end market.  It was probably #2 in buzz by the attendees, despite Huawei's expansive (and expensive) introduction of its Ascend D smartphone with quad application processor and billed as "the fastest smartphone on the planet"…even though it's throttled at HSPA+ speeds, not LTE.  Each year, one company seems to have more ads splashed around the venue (and the city) than any other.  Last year it was Samsung, but this year it was Huawei.

Small Cells Increase Popularity

At MWC, small cell wireless, which includes femtocells, picocells and anything short of a full macro base station, seemed to be a popular theme. Although market-dominant Mindspeed Technologies formalized its picoChip acquisition at MWC, a new chip entrant also emerged. Montreal-based Octasic, Inc. demonstrated its OCT2224W baseband DSP in what is claimed to the world’s smallest Microcell/Small cell platform, WhiteStar by Deltenna.  Octasic’s OCT2224W SoC ships with a 3GPP PHY software library that offers standards-compliant GSM, EDGE, WCDMA, HSPA+ and LTE. .Deltenna adds a dual-core ARM Cortex A9, a Wi-Fi Access Point and GPS-based timing and markets the device to OEMs, Integrators and Operators.  The company claims that up to 64 HSPA+ users in a 10 km cell can be supported.

Last month, the Femtocell Forum changed its name to the Small Cell Forum and expanded its scope. Good timing.

Intel Claims Wi-Fi on Dual-Atom Die

Before getting too excited about Intel's presentation at ISCC (which always seems to coincide too close to MWC dates), Intel does not yet have Wi-Fi on a production-ready X86 die.  However, Intel did present a paper at the conference on their"Rose Point" 32nm SoC that implements Wi-Fi on a dual-Atom die.  The paper addresses the 2.4 GHz RF capability on the same X86 die that may also be clocked near 2.4GHz, clearly an interference challenge for the RF circuitry.  Note that this is not an 802.11n or other specific WLAN solution.  Intel admits that the design probably won't be ready for the market for "another year or two."

Intel once designed a stand-alone 802.11g Wi-Fi chip and was probably the last major company to ship such a product (for laptops, of course).  I remember my discussion with Pat Gelsinger who headed Intel's R&D at the time.  He was roundly critical of the unfair companies (like Broadcom) who dared to offer pre-standard 802.11g chips before the standard was finalized (and before Intel could ship product).  If memory serves, Intel was working on that stand-alone Wi-Fi chip for at least 3 years before they finally shipped a product.

Texas Instruments was probably the first company to put significant digital RF on the same die with a processor, their GPRS DSP/ARM chip for cellular baseband at the time (operating at a much lower 850 MHz).  Later, TI was able to producesingle-die EDGE baseband/RF chips, but by then Broadcom and ST-Ericsson were also shipping single-die EDGE products.  Now, the latter two companies "own" that segment of the market.  Currently, TI, Broadcom and Qualcomm Atheros are shipping hundreds of millions of "combo" cellphone peripheral chips that include not only 11n Wi-Fi, but also Bluetooth, FM, GPS and more on a single die.  Each combo chip has one or more microprocessors (OK, DSP baseband engines) along with RF circuitry.  Of course, those companies don't have an X86 processor, but they are all major producers of ARM-based (Cortex-A9) processors, but have chosen to keep RF on separate dies, and are doing very well with that approach to the market.

Since Intel's SoC Wi-Fi solution won't be ready for perhaps a couple of years, they had better engineer it for 802.11acoperation, which will probably the norm for smartphones and tablets in 2014.

Nvidia Keeping the Icera Name

Most companies that acquire others tend to dispense with the acquired company's identity, witness the many acquisitions by, say, Intel, Broadcom and Cisco. Nvidia, though, is proud of its acquisition of baseband (and RF transceiver) houseIcera Semiconductor and plans to keep the Icera identity with its cellular product line. Now, Nvidia can offercommunications processors that include both baseband and application processors, the dominant market segment (see the graph below). 

CogNovo Impresses at MWC

At the previous MWC'11, Belgium-based CogNovo was demonstrating their LTE-A baseband in FPGA form.  This year, at MWC'12, they were the only company demonstrating a real LTE-Advanced baseband chip.  Their Samsung-fabbed chip was highlighted in Rhode & Schwarz' booth as well as in their own suite. Moreover, they were demonstrating carrier aggregation (perhaps the main feature of LTE-A over LTE) at the R&S booth.  Although CogNovo has real silicon now, it remains committed to licensing the technology.  When asked if Samsung had licensed its IP, the company had no comment.

Verizon Calibrates us on GPS Map Data Appetite

In advertising its new 4GB monthly data cap, Verizon has listed several of the things you can do in that data budget.  It has stated that you can do 30 days of GPS mapping in 4GB.  Verizon doesn't specify on what smartphone that applies, but if you use that much mapping, you'd better look for a non-data-plan map capability, like that of Nokia's new Lumia smartphones.

Shameless Plug

To provide product and market planners with calibration on the market Forward Concepts is offering its new "Cellular Handset & Tablet Core Chip Trends'12" an extensive (312-page) market study that covers the core integrated circuits that enable cellphones and cellular-connected tablets.  In this study, we don't just track basebands & application processors, we also track and forecast RF transceiverspower amplifiers, and power management units in great detail. The report provides 2011 vendor market shares for each of these core cellphone chip types and forecasts units, ASPs & revenues for all of them in detail through 2016. This study explores the dynamics of each of these baseband types and profiles the chip providers and market shares for each of them. We forecast the cellular digital processor market in major categories:

  • Stand-alone Digital Baseband processors,
  • Stand-alone Application Processors
  • Video Co-Processors as adjuncts to basic RISCs
  • Integrated Communication Processors:

 application processors + baseband, &

  • Integrated Ultra-Low-Cost (ULC) basebands with RF transceiver on the same die.

This study explores the dynamics of all these devices and profiles the chip providers and market shares for each of them in many categories.

We believe that there is no other core cellphone chip market study available that has the breadth or depth of coverage of this one. Shipped as PDF only (with enterprise-wide license), price: $3,850.00.  Check the website to get an idea of the full extent of this valuable study and all of the components and companies covered:

As always, I invite your comments.

Will Strauss 
President & Principal Analyst
Forward Concepts