March 16, 2015
By Will Strauss
It’s hard to visualize hundreds of wireless executives in dark suits crammed on trains like cattle every morning and evening on their way to and from MWC at the Barcelona Gran Fria. But, with over 90,000 attendees it was expected. It’s clear though, there were more open collars and fewer ties with the suits this year. And, it’s a ritual necessary for networking and learning about the latest wireless products. Clearly, the biggest overall theme was 5G, followed closely by IoT, but there appeared to be more wearables than at CES. It will be interesting to see if the new Apple Watch will allow breathing room for those wearables.
Below, I’ll discuss a few products that caught my attention at the Mobile World Congress, some of which did not make the headlines.
Marvel Wins Big LTE Socket
At MWC, Marvell demonstrated its Armada Mobile PXA1908 platform with a 5-mode LTE modem which is in Samsung’s low-end Galaxy J1 LTE smartphone that began shipping in January. The PXA1908 features a quad-core 1.2 GHz ARM Cortex A53 application processor. With its strong China presence, Marvell will likely be the #2 LTE chipset supplier this year (following Qualcomm). Details of the PXA1908 are . There were strong rumors at MWC that Marvell’s wireless operations might be paired, sold or merged in some way with a big Chinese organization. We’ll be watching.
LTE Cat 1/Cat 0 Emerges
At MWC, both Altair Semiconductor and Sequans Communications were showing their new LTE Cat 1 (10 Mbps DL) and future Cat 0 (1 Mbps DL) modems. Category 1 modems were included in the original 3GPP LTE specification, while lower-cost and lower-throughput Cat 0 is in upcoming 3GPP release. Offering low-cost platforms for IoT/M2M, the single-mode LTE solutions appear to be ideal for a number of applications, including vending machines, kiosks, digital signage, touch panels and other industrial devices at a low price point. Note that both types are also labeled as LTE-M for machine-type communications. Forward Concepts also has an upcoming report on IoT/M2M in April.
Cavium 1st to Market with C-RAN
At MWC, Cavium displayed a full C-RAN Demo on its 48-processor ThunderX 64-bit ARMv8-A based optimized COTS server working in conjunction with Smart Radio Heads built on the company’s Octeon Fusion® “base station on a chip.” The Fusion multimode eNode B solution is based on purpose-built baseband DSP cores, LTE/3G hardware accelerators, Cavium-developed LTE stack and digital front end (DFE) features. Rather than employ fiber or CPRI links to the remote radio head, Cavium chose to employ Ethernet, which requires more processing at the radio head, but is said to be a more efficient way to implement the “front haul” fabric. In the U.S. there is currently little dark fiber deployed at base stations so Ethernet may be a better solution for C-RAN here.
Intel: Finally a Complete Cellular Portfolio
At MWC, Intel introduced its XMM™7360 LTE-CA modem, with 3x carrier aggregation and 5-mode capability. Like rival Qualcomm, it will include envelope tracking for power efficiency and will have a Dual-SIM capability (necessary for China).
The company also introduced its com-processors with connectivity (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth & GNSS):
- Intel dual-core 64-bit Atom X3-C3130 with Mali 400 MP2 Graphics, 2G/3G/HSPA+
- Intel quad-core 64-bit Atom X3-C3230-RK (Rockchip), Mali 400 MP4 Graphics, 2G/3G/HSPA+
- Intel quad-core 64-bit Atom X3-C3440, Mali T720 MP2 Graphics, 2G/3G/TD-SCDMA/FDD/TDD LTE Cat 4
Atom X5 and X7 offerings are targeting Phablets, Tablets and PCs. With the new connectivity additions, Intel now has a complete LTE modem/com-processor portfolio.
Intel’s smartphone prospects are looking up. A Venture Beat article says that at least some iPhones will ship with Intel LTE chips in 2016. However, I cannot corroborate the article’s thesis, but if true, it would provide impetus for Intel to now equip its new, but empty, fab in Chandler, Arizona for low-power CMOS…for which the company now employs TSMC.
MediaTek Printing Money, Working on 5-mode LTE
MediaTek was very active in displaying its cellphone chip wares at MWC. However, all of the (very impressive) demos seemed to demonstrate its octa-core application processor rather than its LTE modem capability. The company is shipping 3-mode LTE chips, mostly in China (and Vodafone in Europe), with 5-mode versions due later this year. The company is clearly growing with strong prospects for this year.
Qualcomm at MWC
At MWC, Qualcomm was (among many other things) active in promoting LTE-U (unlicensed) through its new 5GHz chip offerings, the FTR8950 RF receiver for small cells and WTR3950 RF receiver for mobile devices. As explained in my February newsletter, LTE-U is simply applying LTE air interface technology to wireless communication over the “unlicensed” 5GHz band that also supports Wi-Fi. I go into the technology in greater detail in my February 27thEETimes article.
Also at MWC, Qualcomm introduced its 3D ultrasonic fingerprint scanning technology. Conventional capacitive fingerprint sensors can be hampered by the presence of water, sweat or hand lotion, and some have fooled such scanners by molding copies of fingerprints. The ultrasonic approach is said to be unaffected by foreign substances coating a finger, and can “see” more than just lines and swirl patterns. I sent a colleague of mine who has no fingerprints (thanks to an early allergic dermatology condition) to try Qualcomm’s fingerprint demo. Of course, the machine operator was a bit flabbergasted that no fingerprints were “visible”, but the pattern of pores in his skin did register, and could prove his identity in that form.
New Approach to Envelope Tracking
During MWC, Boston-based ETA Devices demonstrated (away from the Gran Fria) its new approach to power amplifier envelope tracking, which employs analog technology rather than digital as others have implemented. The company’s founders include two MIT electrical engineering professors and a former lead power amplifier (PA) researcher for Ericsson and Huawei. ETA’s technology is said to solve the fundamental trade-off between power efficiency and linearity to currently deliver 70%+ efficiency for LTE and WCDMA PAs with a 100% efficiency limit.
Unlike conventional envelope tracking, ETAdvanced is said to support ultra wideband channels of up to 160 MHz, making the technology future proof by supporting both LTE-A and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. This is unlike conventional envelope tracking which only works up to 20-40 MHz…far short of the 100 MHz required by LTE-A and the 160 MHz utilized by 802.11ac. Unlike most semiconductor startups, the company is shipping silicon chips rather than licensing the technology.