As the newly appointed president and CEO of Freescale (FSL), Gregg Lowe may be calling on a number of the same customers he visited in his previous role as head of Texas Instruments’ (TXN) analog chips business. The two Texas companies compete head-on in a number of markets, and right now one of their most intense rivalries is in the market for silicon for small cell base stations.
“The big trend we see is a new wave of highly integrated base-station processors,” says Tom R. Halfhill, senior analyst at
The Linley Group. “They can replace the discrete communications processor, digital-signal processor, and FPGA, and often they can also replace an Ethernet and/or serial RapidIO switch, too. The reduced chip count cuts cost and power consumption while saving space. These integrated processors are perfect for small cells.”
Halfhill says the most powerful processors he’s seen in this space are Freescale’s QorIQ Qonverge B4860 and TI’s KeyStone II TMS320TCI6636, both integrated solutions that support LTE and LTE-Advanced. Freescale and Texas Instruments each claim that roughly half the companies designing small cell base stations are incorporating their integrated processors. “We like to say we have won in the neighborhood of 50% of the overall designs, but if you look at which 50% we have won, we have won the big customers,” says Tom Flanagan, director of technical strategy for TI’s multicore processors unit.
But several equipment makers are sourcing SoCs for small cell base stations from more than one company. Mindspeed (MSPD), which recently acquired Picochip, is another major player in this market, and says it also has a significant number of design wins. And since none of these products have actually shipped yet, time will tell which chip designers turn out to be the dominant suppliers. Mindspeed’s VP of strategic marketing, Rupert Baines, says that longer term he is most concerned about competition from Qualcomm (QCOM) and Broadcom (BROM) because like Mindspeed, these chip designers have deep expertise in software.
Texas Instruments has focused on solutions for small offices and enterprises, not the residential small cell market. “We really never felt the residential market was of interest to us and we didn’t do anything to address that market. We felt the more interesting market would be from about 16 users to 250-300 users, almost a smaller footprint macrocell,” says Flanagan.
Freescale has taken a different approach, including the residential market in order to help carriers fulfill their customers’ needs. “We see many different RFQs from customers that come from their customers looking for different form factors,” says Scott Aylor, general manager of Freescale’s wireless access division. “We start in the residential area, at the low end. We then migrate all the way to the 9132 picocell type solution. It’s the same core and the same IP. Our customers have the opportunity to enter with a given solution and migrate their customers up and down and we see that happen quite a lot. People want to migrate up.” Freescale says it has the first base station-on-chip portfolio built on a common architecture that scales from small to large cells.
Freescale develops the cores for these processors internally, and the company says that gives it the flexibility to create products that are ideally configured for small cell base stations. “We put very baseband oriented instructions in all of our cores,” says Aylor.
Texas Instruments’ solution uses four ARM Cortex-A15 cores, the first communications chip to use the Cortex-A15. “We have been fielding ARM cores for 10-12 years,” says Flanagan. “Nobody is at the point we are.” Mindspeed’s solution also uses ARM cores. “We’ve been partners with ARM for 15 years; a lot of the functionality that’s there reflects our input over the years. The analysts would say ARM is on a roll and that is probably a better path,” says Baines. “But what really matters is the baseband, the actual DSP and the modem. That’s what we do for a living.”
Clearly, the competition is intense in this growing area, and that can only be good news for the companies that design small cell base stations. Analyst Tom Halfhill says these base stations-on-a-chip will “change the way small-cell base stations are designed.”
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