Marvell gains status in telecom market with Nokia, Samsung wins

Marvell Technology Group, a Santa Clara, California, company was chosen this week by Nokia to help the Finnish telecom vendor solve its 5G chip problems.

In October 2019, Nokia said that its 5G profit margins were dampened by the high cost of its ReefShark mobile chipsets. The company has never explicitly said that the problems arose from its relationship with Intel, but Nokia’s CEO said the company had previously worked with just one supplier, and analysts have deduced that supplier was Intel.

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The Nokia engagement is a big win for Marvell, a company that earned its stripes making storage chips, but that pivoted to telecom infrastructure chips a couple of years ago when it acquired Cavium.

John Schimpf, senior director of marketing for baseband processors at Marvell, said the Nokia engagement is the first time the two companies have worked together on infrastructure products.

In terms of Intel, Schimpf said, “I don’t know what Nokia’s plans are going forward with the exception that they’ll be working with us on baseband and network processors. To deal with some of their 5G challenges, they elected to engage with Marvell.”

Nokia also made an announcement this week that it was “working with multiple partners to support its ReefShark family of chipsets,” including Intel. It said it was using Intel’s Atom P5900 processor as part of ReefShark.

Nokia’s 5G chip problems arose because it had chosen field programmable gate array (FPGA) silicon. An FPGA is an integrated circuit designed to be configured by a customer after manufacturing, providing a certain level of programmability. But the FPGAs turned out to be overly expensive, and they consumed too much energy. The higher cost was cutting into Nokia’s 5G profit margins.

Now, Nokia is pivoting to Marvell’s Octeon Fusion baseband chips, which it will use in its ReefShark 5G silicon portfolio. The Octeon Fusion baseband chip is based on the Arm platform, and is designed for 4G and 5G macro base stations. “It still has some programmable capabilities but not at the same expense of pure FPGAs,” said Schimpf.

Rather than just buying Marvell’s Octeon Fusion chips, Nokia is collaborating with Marvell to build its 5G baseband chips. Schimpf said in this model, a customer such as Nokia likes the basic architecture of Octeon Fusion, but they also want to use IP they’ve developed in-house over the years.

“This chip will run 4G and 5G and has the headroom to accommodate the next iteration of the spec for 5G,” said Schimpf. “Even customers that are only continuing to roll out their LTE networks but know in the future they’ll want to roll out 5G — this processor will allow them to run LTE today and 5G in the same base station.”

Marvell and Samsung

Marvell named five major telecom vendors: Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, Huawei and ZTE. “Two of those tier 1s are building their own baseband processors – Ericsson and Huawei,” said Schimpf. “Outside of that we have two — Nokia and a continuing relationship with Samsung.”

Samsung is also using Marvell’s Octeon Fusion processor for its 5G base stations. Schimpf claims Marvell’s silicon is “one of the things that put Samsung on the map” and helped catapult it into one of the major telecom infrastructure vendors. “Prior to that, they hadn’t been considered in this tier for OEM network equipment,” he said. “For us, it gave us credibility to have these conversations with Nokia.”