One of the key areas that any smartphone chip vendor -- aspiring or established -- needs to invest in is cellular modem technology. The speed and quality of a cellular modem is critical to the "always on, always connected" experience that today's smartphones offer. After all, how useful would your smartphone be if it could only connect to the Web via Wi-Fi?
Today, Qualcomm (QCOM -1.96%) is far-and-away the leader in both cellular modem technology as well as in its ability to integrate that technology with complex applications processors.
In this article, I want to explore just how far Intel (INTC -0.97%) is behind Qualcomm in cellular modem technology. Let's take a closer look.
The picture looks different depending on whether we're talking discrete or integrated
In a smartphone, the cellular baseband processor can either be a stand-alone part or it can be integrated as part of an applications processor. There are pros and cons to both approaches (integration generally leads to cost and efficiency benefits), but in the merchant silicon market, it is very difficult for a vendor to sell an applications processor that doesn't also integrate a baseband.
As far as integrated solutions go, Intel is woefully behind the competition. It is only shipping low-end chips with integrated 3G connectivity capability, with chips with category 6 LTE-Advanced coming in the first half of 2016.
In contrast, Qualcomm is today shipping applications processors with integrated category 9 LTE-Advanced modems, and it should be shipping devices with integrated category 12 download and category 13 upload speeds for device availability in early 2016.
As far as stand-alone solutions go, Intel is in a better competitive position. It is shipping category 6 LTE-Advanced chips today and is expected to start shipping modems with category 10 LTE-Advanced capability by the end of 2015.
Intel still has a lot of work to do to catch up with Qualcomm, but there's hope
Intel has certainly improved its efforts in the cellular modem space, and I think few would argue that the company's solutions aren't credible.
However, it's pretty clear that Intel still has a ways to go before it can be considered a truly viable competitor to Qualcomm. On the raw modem technology front, Intel looks about a generation behind, and as far as integration of that modem technology into applications processors, Intel is even more behind.
Catching up with Qualcomm on the absolute bleeding edge of modem technology is likely to prove extremely difficult. This means that Intel's chances of successfully competing for the applications processor sockets in high-end smartphones look quite slim in the near-to-medium term.
That being said, I do think Intel should be able to improve its competitiveness in low-end and mid-range system-on-chip solutions if it can quicken the pace at which it gets its modem technologies integrated with capable applications processors.
I think that with its SoFIA LTE 2 and SoFIA MID products, which Intel has said will launch sometime in 2016, the company will substantially improve its standing with respect to low-end and mid-range integrated smartphone chip solutions.
The low-end and mid-range smartphone markets aren't anywhere near as glamorous as the market for flagship phones, but these markets sure do bring a lot of volume.
If Intel (either alone or with its partners Spreadtrum and/or Rockchip) can consistently field competitive products into those segments, then the company could substantially improve its profitability in the mobile market. And, while it's at it, get some more chip volume into its manufacturing plants.