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Intel gets serious about wireless

Intel is moving in the direction of integrating a modem inside an Atom processor

The fact that LTE connectivity is becoming ubiquitous in smartphones and tablets isn't lost on Intel, which aims for its baseband processors to be used in more mobile devices and base stations.

Intel is optimizing LTE modems to be paired closely with its smartphone, tablet and ultrabook chips, and the chip maker ultimately plans to integrate baseband processors, which manage radio functions, inside its mobile chips.

Intel wants to increase its shipments of baseband processors independent of application processors. The company at last week's Mobile World Congress announced plans to start shipping its first multimode LTE modem for smartphones, tablets and ultrabooks. The XMM 7160 modem supports 15 LTE bands, and also 3G and EDGE communications.

"We are going after quite a number of different branches of customers to help them get into the market fast," said Hermann Eul, vice president and general manager for Intel's Mobile and Communications Group, in an interview at MWC, in Barcelona last week.

Intel's wireless communications business got a start with the acquisition of Infineon Wireless in early 2011. Eul joined Intel with that acquisition and he was picked to lead the Mobile and Communications Group along with Mike Bell, a former Palm and Apple executive.

Intel has invested aggressively in the development of low-power chips, and a number of smartphones and tablets with low-power Atom chips have shipped. Intel has accelerated the development of mobile chips to take advantage of its latest manufacturing processes, which will bring more performance and power savings. However, company officials declined to provide a specific date when the baseband processor would be integrated with the application processor.

"We are looking at a time frame, but we have not spoken about it," Eul said. "The integration down the road will certainly happen."

Integration of the application and baseband processor is important to Intel, but customers have different needs, Eul said. The communications processor business is key in providing a range of chip offerings to customers looking to build cellular and data connectivity in mobile devices and other equipment, Eul said.

LTE is now a big priority for Intel, Eul said. Intel is projecting LTE connections to double over the next year to around 120 million, and in mobile devices the LTE chipset is as important as the application processor, he said.

"LTE is the backside that speaks to the network. If that doesn't work you'll be disappointed," Eul said.

Another priority is to expand the number of LTE bands supported by Intel's wireless chips. That will help smartphones and tablets work on multiple LTE networks in different countries.

"This multiplies in LTE's case," Eul said. "We're counting 39 bands and a year back we were counting 13 bands."

As Intel focuses on mobile devices, the ability to provide a baseband processor is a step in the right direction, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst for Mercury Research.

"What we're seeing is the evolution of what the expected architecture is going to be. You are going to get your application and baseband processor from the same vendor," McCarron said.

The industry has moved in the direction of including more smartphone components inside a chip, McCarron said. Qualcomm was the first to integrate a modem inside its Snapdragon chips and Nvidia just introduced Tegra 4i, which integrates an LTE modem with a Cortex-A9 ARM processor.

"I wouldn't say it's the last remaining piece, but it's a critical piece," McCarron said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is [email protected]


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