A little while back, I wrote a piece discussing why Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) was unlikely to halt the development of its cellular chips. In particular, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich pointed out that he expected that a significant portion of Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Chromebooks sold would eventually come packed with cellular connectivity -- either 3G or LTE.
Interestingly enough, some details just hit the Web, via Liliputing, about an Ultrabook based on Intel's next-generation Broadwell chips. This notebook is loaded with all of the latest technologies,presumably to allow developers to test any and all features that they would like. One feature, in particular, that stood out was the inclusion of the Intel XMM 7160 LTE modem.
This has me thinking: Will most future laptop PCs have some sort of cellular connectivity?
Why it hasn't been done
Back on Intel's Q4 2012 earnings call, Craig Berger from FBR Capital Markets asked then-CEO Paul Otellini about the company's plans to potentially put cellular chips into PCs.
The problem has been price and most PC manufacturers would prefer, for IP and royalty based reasons, to not build that into their PCs and to have it be either an add-in chip through a slot or add-in service through a dongle.
Now, interestingly enough, what Otellini was probably referring to was that Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) collects royalties on the sale of all devices containing cellular connectivity. If PC vendors included this feature more broadly, not only would the price of PCs go up because of the need for additional components, but Qualcomm would also, in that case, be getting a sizable piece of the action.
On top of all of that, it's not exactly clear how many PC buyers would be willing to fork over more cash to their wireless carriers to be able to use these devices on the carriers' networks.
Could any of this change in the future?
Many of the realities of this situation will probably persist for the foreseeable future: Carriers will require monthly subscription fees to use cellular devices on their networks, and Qualcomm will require its royalty payments.
Further, with smartphone penetration, particularly in developed markets, looking quite high -- Asymco claims that the penetration rate in the United States is 70% -- it seems likely that consumers will simply prefer to "tether" their notebooks to their smartphones for Internet access.
What's the opportunity for Intel, then?
From the perspective of an Intel stockholder, all of this is interesting because of the potential opportunity for the company to sell more chips. I suspect that most PCs with cellular will probably use an Intel cellular modem, since Intel will probably be able to bundle it along with everything else that it sells to PC manufacturers, but the scope of this opportunity looks limited.
Remember: Desktop PCs generally have no need for cellular connectivity since they are stationary or their range of motion is well within reach of a Wi-Fi hotspot, so that's a pretty significant chunk of the total PC market already gone. Then, even within notebooks, I would expect that only very high-end non-Chromebook models will even have the option of having cellular connectivity.
In my view, the opportunity for incremental chip content here is probably somewhere on the order of 10 million to 15 million units. Assuming an average selling price of about $10 for the standalone LTE baseband, I would imagine that the revenue opportunity here for Intel is not more than $150 million for the foreseeable future.
Foolish bottom line
Laptop PCs are usually within reach of Wi-Fi hotspots. And for cases where Wi-Fi is out of reach, many, if not most, users have smartphones with reasonably fast cellular capabilities to service such needs.
Finally, even if there were a strong case for widespread cellular connectivity across notebooks, it's unclear whether the value added warrants the significantly higher total cost of ownership of such notebooks.
In other words, I seriously doubt that many PCs will come packed with cellular connectivity for the foreseeable future.