This year's Mobile World Congress will see an LTE that's more mature than ever, with higher speeds, more device selection and more chip suppliers adding to the range of options for the fast mobile technology.
While Qualcomm still dominates the field in LTE smartphone chips, other suppliers are nipping at its heels. Broadcom, a fierce rival just up the freeway from Qualcomm, will put its LTE efforts front and center at the show later this month. It previewed the goods on Monday by announcing what it called a turnkey platform for midpriced or even low-priced smartphones.
Broadcom can use the same platform with a dual-core SoC (system on a chip), the M320, and a quad-core design, the M340. It's already shipping the dual-core product to phone makers in sample quantities, and it plans to sample the quad-core silicon later in the first half of the year.
The platform is built for so-called Category 4 LTE, which can deliver as much as 150Mbps (bits per second) to a phone, and intended for smartphones priced below US$300 without carrier subsidies, Broadcom said. It can reach those speeds on both major types of LTE, the FD (frequency division) technology used by most carriers up to now and the TD (time-division) variant being used by China Mobile, Sprint and some other operators around the world.
By using the same platform for baseband chips with either two or four cores, Broadcom hopes to help device makers engineer new products and get them into the market more quickly. The platform includes an integrated Android KitKat OS and a broad set of wireless technologies, including 2G and 3G cellular, fast 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and NFC (near-field communication). Broadcom says it is equipped to support VoLTE (voice over LTE), which a few mobile operators have already started to offer and others plan to roll out this year.
The platform has been validated on more than 40 networks in 20 countries, ensuring worldwide roaming capability, the company said.
Broadcom isn't alone. Intel, MediaTek and other chipmakers have also started moving in on Qualcomm's lucrative territory. But latecomers will suffer by entering the market long after Qualcomm, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight64.
"The challenge for anybody who is coming to LTE late ... is that Qualcomm has established relationships with all of the handset suppliers, and they have a lot of in-field experience and qualification and understand a lot of the subtleties of LTE implementations," Brookwood said. "The other guys are going to have to work overtime to try and catch up with Qualcomm."
Broadcom was developing its own LTE silicon last year until it acquired technology from Renesas Electronics for $162 million in October.
Handset makers welcome rivals of Qualcomm because they don't want to be locked into one chip vendor, Brookwood said. But as the smartphone silicon market grows more competitive, consumers won't see that drive phone prices down across the board, he said. Instead, more chipmakers will lead to more choice: Manufacturers will adopt different underlying silicon to distinguish their phones in a variety of ways, such as battery life, performance and features, as well as price.
If Broadcom's smartphone price target is just under $300, that comes in around the middle range of the LTE market globally, between top-end phones such as the Apple iPhone 5S, Samsung Galaxy S4 and Nokia Lumia 1020 for around $600 and cheap phones in some markets going for as little as $100 without subsidies. Broadcom says its platform makes top-grade performance possible for that price range with both Category 4 LTE and 802.11ac silicon that Broadcom calls "5G Wi-Fi." The 802.11ac standard allows for as much as 1.3Gbps (bits per second).
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