January 23, 2014 -- With the latest smartphones all vying to support the 4G wireless technology known as Long Term Evolution (LTE), smartphone chipset suppliers will be fighting to become part of the LTE handset modem landscape currently dominated by industry giant Qualcomm, according to a new LTE Modem Insights brief from IHS Inc.
San Diego, Calif.-based Qualcomm at present has a commanding hold of the mobile handset LTE baseband market, with a breathtaking 97 percent share of shipments at the end of the first half in 2013 that amounts to near-total control of the space. The only other LTE baseband chipset maker of any importance during the period was Samsung Electronics of South Korea, situated at a very far removed with 3 percent of the market. .
A number of other suppliers—all based in California like Qualcomm—also have solutions for the moment, including the likes of Intel, GCT Semiconductor, nVidia and Broadcom. However, not all of these modem chipset makers have design wins that ramped up to actual production, which leaves the LTE modem market virtually uncontested for now at the hands of Qualcomm.
In the next couple of years, IHS expects the competitive terrain for LTE modems to be hotly contested as other suppliers attempt to close the gap with Qualcomm, by evolving their own solutions in order to differentiate their offerings.
The road to 4G: fraught with weighty considerations
While supporting 4G LTE might be the latest “must-have” feature for chipset suppliers, simply being able to claim LTE support and even passing certifications set by mobile network operators are not necessarily indicators of optimization or innovation.
Given their critical role, LTE modems must extend past minimum requirements and be able to deliver to consumers the kind of functionality they have come to expect from top-performing smartphones and tablets. The capabilities LTE modems must fully possess range from website downloads to video playback, social networking and roaming calls, all the while optimizing battery life.
Elements of modem design are key
The desired optimal performance of LTE modems depends on two chief design elements—the protocol stack and peripheral algorithms; and the RF, or radio frequency, architecture.
The protocol stack and peripheral algorithms are essentially the programs that dictate how the modem should communicate with the network as defined by its interface technology, in this case LTE. Here the stack determines how well the phone’s chipset can communicate over the air—not only in ideal conditions but also in the presence of noise, interference and fading.
Meanwhile, the RF front-end architecture is responsible for the physical transmission and reception of the radio frequency signals that carry voice or data packets. And when executed properly, the RF architecture is able to use the least amount of power during transmission and reception, while still ensuring the best speed possible.
For modem suppliers, the capability to design products not in isolation is important. Suppliers should strive to understand the smartphones and tablets into which the modems will be integrated, as well as the applications and use cases supported by those devices, along with a host of other considerations, including the elements within the wireless network and the servers or data centers in the cloud with which the devices must interact.
More modem suppliers will be entering the market as LTE continues to achieve scale, such as MediaTek from Taiwan. All told, the number of LTE subscribers will almost quadruple from 2014 to 2017. IHS estimates.
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