Broadcom Challenges Qualcomm With 'Smallest' 4G LTE Smartphone Modem
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In the battle to squeeze onto the tiny real estate inside your smartphone or tablet, Broadcom just took a shot at dominant player Qualcomm.
Broadcom has revealed it’s prepping a smartphone modem that supports super-fast data speeds known as Long Term Evolution or LTE. The company is currently sampling its chip, known as BCM21892, to clients and will begin production next year. It says the chip takes up 35% less space than its previous offerings.
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As a result of being so small the modem chip will also be more energy efficient and cheaper to produce. “It will cost less than those of our competitors,” Broadcom Chief Executive Scott McGregor said plainly in an interview. “So customers will be pretty pleased.”
Shares of Broadcom ticked up 0.8% in New York to $33.65 on Tuesday afternoon; they’re also up 8.9% in the last three months, suggesting investors have already priced today’s somewhat-expected news into the stock.
The Broadcom-Qualcomm battle has echoes of the skirmish between Intel and AMD over PC chips, except theirs is a war over three key sockets in a smartphone: the processor (brain), the modem, and the connectivity combo chip. They and others are making varying attempts to combine some of those functionalities into one system on a chip (SoC).
Qualcomm is the market leader for the first two areas and Broadcom for combo chips, which help smartphones access WiFi and Bluetooth. Broadcom has around 90% market share for smartphone combo chips, according to analyst Patrick Wang of Evercore Partners. But it has just 4-5% share of the market for modems, where Qualcomm is also the leader in LTE.
Complicating matters is that Qualcomm’s latest 860 Snapdragon processor also integrates LTE connectivity, having made a smart, early bet on LTE. As such, the company supplied 86% of the 47 million LTE-capable chips that were shipped last year, according to Bloomberg. Other processor-making rivals like Samsung, Nvidia and Texas Instruments don’t make processors with LTE integration, but Broadcom is working on offering the same eventually.
Until then, Broadcom hopes that the extra features on its new modem will make it a better standalone chip than Qualcomm’s integrated processor. Among those features: voice-over-LTE support and technology that helps a carrier make full use of its bandwidth, as well as technology that helps in spectrum sharing between carriers (which won’t be till a few years down the line).
“The real advantage with this chip coming out as a very competitive chip is it offers choice for our customers,” said McGregor. In a veiled reference to Qualcomm he added: “Our competitors have announced chips but I question they will be fully-featured support of world bands and data rates. They may be an LTE chip, but remember that LTE is a family of standards.”
Broadcom also stands to benefit from better margins on the new LTE modem. While the connectivity combo chips typically cost handset manufacturers between $3 and $5, the modem chip is in the high teens to 20s, says Wang, who anticipates that Apple will choose to put Broadcom’s current combo chip in a (rumoured) iPhone 5S, and that Samsung would also put it in its forthcoming Galaxy 4S.
“Broadcom and Qualcomm will be trading body shots here for the next couple of years,” said Wang. “Broadcom won’t make [LTE] processors to displace Qualcomm in the near term, but six to 12 quarters out, who knows.” Broadcom does make processors, including the low-end chip that powers the Raspberry Pi computer.
When asked when Broadcom might bring out an LTE processor to challenge Qualcomm, McGregor only said that it made sense to integrate processors and Broadcom’s connectivity products, “but that’s not what we’re announcing today.”