MediaTek's global strategy to benefit CEVA
MediaTek, a Taiwan chip behemoth that dominates the Chinese market, has announced its plan to establish a foothold in the US in addition to Europe and Japan. For that, the company has new ammo: a multimode-LTE modem chipset that is going through operators' arduous certification process; and an advanced "worldphone" SoC that will incorporate CDMA2000. However, the commercial version of the worldphone won't hit the market until early 2015, noted the firm.
Dubbed MT6290, MediaTek's LTD chipset handles both FDD and TDD modes. Designed for broad compatibility with mobile operator networks worldwide, the chip supports the DC-HSPA+, W-CDMA, TD-SCDMA, EDGE and GSM/GPRS radio technologies, in addition to LTE.
Still missing in the radio mix is CDMA2000.
MediaTek addressed the issue this week by announcing collaboration with VIA Telecom for integrating VIA's CDMA2000 technology into MediaTek's upcoming worldphone SoC.
The move, in turn, will open the door for CEVA, a DSP core IP vendor, to seek a big design win in MediaTek's SoC. This is possible because CEVA's TeakLite DSP core is used at the heart of VIA Telecom's CDMA2000 baseband solution.
While CEVA CEO Gideon Wertheizer declined to publicly connect the dots, MediaTek president C.J. Hsieh, in an interview with EE Times, confirmed that CEVA will be in MediaTek's worldphone SoC.
MediaTek President C.J. Hsieh
Qualcomm and Samsung are the two biggest LTE modem players, and Huawei (through its HiSilicon chip subsidiary) is in the Chinese and Korean LTE markets, according to Will Strauss, president of Forward Concepts, the Arizona-based market research company. Marvell also recently cracked the China market with an LTE and TD-SCDMA modem, Strauss added.
But often, so-called newly designed "global" LTE modem chips, developed by vendors other than Qualcomm, do not address CDMA2000.
In an impromptu interview with EE Times at CES, Sehat Sutardja, CEO of Marvell, confirmed that Marvell's multimode LTE solution does not include CDMA2000. It's because "that standard is going away anyway," he said. Sutardja referred to Verizon Wireless's announcement in which the carrier said it is to sunset 2G and 3G CDMA networks by 2021.
Finbarr Moynihan, GM, international sales and marketing at MediaTek, disagrees. Moynihan believes that CDMA2000 is important for MediaTek's global ambition, since Verizon Wireless and Sprint in the US still use it, and over in Japan, Softbank (which acquired Sprint last year) also uses CDMA technology.
Forward Concepts' Strauss agrees. With the CDMA2000-included worldphone SoC, MediaTek could hope for sales for cellphones to Verizon and Sprint in the US market. "CDMA is necessary for complete US coverage and to ease the eventual transition to LTE, even though the US carriers say that LTE is their long-term focus."
Despite MediaTek's stated mission of global reach, Strauss suspects that "MediaTek's game plan is to emphasize the large, and better understood, China market." He explained that the addition of CDMA will make China Telecom happy, because it has China's only CDMA network, where MediaTek can "carve out one market niche not served by the other LTE modem players."
Strauss observed that MediaTek's LTE modem "appears to be an add-on to their existing 2G/3G modem." The approach is similar to that of Intel, which added its LTE to Infineon's existing 2G/3G modem.
In both cases, the LTE modem is a different architecture from the existing 2G/3G modem.
"In Intel's case, they added a Tensilica DSP core based LTE engine (this was earlier acquired by Infineon from Blue Wonder communications) to add to their existing CEVA DSP core 2G/3G engine," said Strauss.
For MediaTek's LTE engine, the company used Coresonic's DSP engine. MediaTek acquired Linkoping, Sweden-based Coresonic AB in 2012. Strauss suspects MediaTek will leave its existing 2G/3G modem alone, so that adding LTE won't disturb the existing modem.
MediaTek plans to integrate its new LTE chipset into the company's own apps processor a la Qualcomm's Snapdragon mode, later this year.
However, before taking that step, the company needs to face the biggest and the most immediate challenge: operators' certification.
At press time, MediaTek's LTE modem has not been certified by any operators worldwide. However, MediaTek president Hsieh said he expects a design win (for its LTE modem and its application processor) in a handset in the second quarter this year. While he declined to say in which country that smartphone will be used, he confirmed that it won't be the US.
The hard reality for modem chip suppliers is that to get a design win from a handset vendor, they must first go through a long, arduous certification/approval process by operators. Reportedly, this can drag on more than six months. It's even more rigorous in the US, particularly with AT&T Wireless.
Even mighty Broadcom last year reportedly failed to come up with an LTE modem chip that could cut the mustard with the stringent certification tests by AT&T Wireless.
Broadcom made its initial attempt for a 4G multimode solution by using technology it acquired from Beceem Communications in late 2010. After its certification troubles with AT&T, Broadcom made a surprise move last September by acquiring Renesas Mobile's LTE assets including IP, SoC and engineers.
Forward Concept's Strauss said, "It should also be noted that Intel and Broadcom, using its acquired Renesas Mobile architecture, are both shipping multimode LTE modems in the tablet market." Strauss, however, added that neither is yet in a cellphone. He believes each will announce a cellphone socket at the Mobile World Congress in February.
Clearly, the North American market is a tough nut to crack, since Samsung and Apple are the two handset brands that take the lion's share. Both handset OEMs make their own chips.
Strauss, however, stated: "Remember that MediaTek is a big company with lots of resources, money and talent included, so I expect them to be a player on the world LTE stage later this year."
- Junko Yoshida
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