Different strokes for different (chip) folks: Entner

Roger Entner

In recent years, the FTC raised concerns that Qualcomm’s patent portfolio and unbiased licensing scheme would prevent other companies from manufacturing and selling 5G chipsets, leading to an anti-trust lawsuit that concluded in November 2019. However, the prediction has not borne out.

Currently, there are two companies, Qualcomm and MediaTek, that sell 5G chipsets to the device ecosphere at large, two captive suppliers who make their own 5G chipsets for internal consumption, and one company that is creating its own new 5G chipset also for internal consumption.

The mobile chipset business has a series of players with different objectives. Companies like Qualcomm and MediaTek provide mobile chipsets to device manufacturers and serve the vital function of ecosphere enablers. Without them, the plethora of devices and choices consumers enjoy when it comes to smartphones would not be possible.

Another set of companies are making mobile chipsets only for themselves to create a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Apple and Samsung fall into this camp. Huawei is potentially a hybrid case as it was previously only providing its own handset group with chipsets, but now also provides them to a Chinese state-led consortium that purchased the Honor handset line.

Recon chart
Source: Recon Analytics

Currently, Qualcomm provides high-quality Systems on Chip (SOC) that are integrating multiple components, ranging from baseband, AI, graphics, camera, to CPU into one chip to anyone interested in them.

Qualcomm was the first company to offer 5G chipsets, with the first devices hitting the market at the end of 2019. MediaTek is offering a similar, but less advanced and less integrated product line to device manufacturers looking for low-level to medium-level chipsets. By the middle of 2020, MediaTek’s chipsets were powering a broad portfolio of handsets.

Intel, another ecosphere provider, sold its mobile chip business to Apple in December 2019, nine years after it entered the mobile chip market by buying a division of Infineon. Intel’s motivation to buy Infineon was that Infineon was the sole provider of modems to Apple.

Reportedly during the negotiations between Intel and Infineon, then-Intel CEO Paul Otellini sought reassurances from then-Apple CEO Steve Jobs that Apple would continue to use Infineon products after the Intel acquisition as Otellini recognized the importance of Apple as a customer for its chipsets.

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During the nine years after the Infineon acquisition, Intel’s mobile chipset division's fate was intricately linked to Apple as Intel struggled to find other customers in the mobile device manufacturer ecosphere. In a nutshell, Intel was unable to compete with Qualcomm on quality like RF performance and SoC integration and was unwilling to compete with MediaTek as it had a more integrated solution and Intel did not. Intel ultimately threw in the towel on the heels of Apple and Qualcomm settling their lawsuit and agreeing to a six-plus two-year licensing and multiyear chipset supply agreement.

Huawei through its HiSilicon subsidiary has developed and used its own 5G chipsets and has integrated them into its own devices. While the Huawei chipsets are not as integrated and small as Qualcomm’s, Huawei’s engineers have found ways to integrate the chipsets into its devices. It is using Qualcomm, Skyworks and Qorvo, all from the U.S., for its RF front-end.

Huawei’s role in the mobile world got a lot more interesting as it has sold its Honor-brand device division to a Chinese state-led consortium of more than three dozen companies as Huawei experienced a lot of pressure on its devices sales due to American sanctions. Reportedly, Huawei is also considering selling its Mate and P-line device groups in the hope that American sanctions will not follow to the new owners of the device businesses.

Up until now, Huawei is not selling its HiSilicon chipsets to other companies, other than the group of Huawei dealers that acquired the Honor-brand device division, as a competitive weapon in order to keep their best technology captive. In 2019, during the trade tensions between the U.S. and China over Huawei, the company offered to license its 5G intellectual property to American companies to alleviate any spying concerns, but no deal has emerged to date.

If Huawei is divesting its entire device portfolio, Huawei might either also divest its HiSilicon division with it or become an ecosphere provider for other handset manufacturers. The direction of Huawei’s HiSilicon business will be quite telling of the size of the Chinese walls between Huawei and its divested handset businesses, as well as other handset vendors.

Samsung has been producing its own Exynos modems and mobile processors and has also purchased mobile chipsets from Qualcomm. Samsung's new 5G devices, including its S20 5G flagship smartphone, is shipping either with the Exynos or Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset.

Samsung sells the Qualcomm variant in the U.S., China, and most recently South Korea, and its Exynos variant in the rest of the world. Benchmarking has shown that the Qualcomm chipset version regularly outperforms the Exynos one and that Samsung uses the Qualcomm variant in the most competitive markets to close the gap against Apple’s iPhone.

In 2008, Apple with its computer heritage bought P.A. Semi, a processor development company specializing in highly power-efficient designs, to build its own ARM-based processors for iPhones, iPads, and similar devices. Apple’s ARM processors are now the fastest CPUs in the market and will start powering Apple Mac computers starting in 2021.

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Apple sourced its baseband chipset first from Infineon, then post-acquisition from Intel, then a few years later from Qualcomm, then dual-sourced from Intel and Qualcomm, and most recently in 2019, signed an agreement to return to Qualcomm.

In 2019, Apple also bought Intel’s baseband chipset business and has started hiring more wireless engineers in San Diego, Qualcomm’s home market. Considering Apple’s track record, it is quite logical that Apple is going to try to replicate its successful ARM processor endeavor in modems, and internally source its 5G mobile chipsets when the Qualcomm agreement expires. The Qualcomm agreement gives Apple breathing room to pour its resources into an area that is a key differentiator between mobile devices.

These successful 5G chipset endeavors demonstrate that Qualcomm’s patent portfolio and licensing policy do not present a significant barrier to innovation. Qualcomm’s licensing rates have not changed since it first started licensing CDMA in the 1990s, while its portfolio has grown substantially, facilitating continued innovation that has made the United States a leader in international telecommunications on a fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory basis.

As silicon merchants to the industry, Qualcomm and MediaTek’s participation in chipset development creates choice and opportunity for many mobile device manufacturers to have a chipset that meets their needs and budgets; it exponentially increases the range of consumer choices without infringing on the ability of other companies to enter the market.

Roger Entner is the founder and analyst at Recon Analytics. He received an honorary doctor of science degree from Heriot-Watt University. Recon Analytics specializes in fact-based research and the analysis of disparate data sources to provide unprecedented insights into the world of telecommunications. Follow Roger on Twitter @rogerentner and catch him on The Week with Roger podcast.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.