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Intel’s Latest Attempt to Buy Cellphone Chip Market Share

by Sravan Kundojjala | Sep 01, 2010

Consolidation in the baseband market continued with Intel acquiring Infineon's wireless business on Monday for $1.4 billion. Infineon's takeover is the fourth high-profile announcement in the last two years. Previously NXP, Freescale and Texas Instruments announced their exits from the merchant baseband market. This signals that the entry barrier is now too high for new entrants and raises pressure on smaller players such as Marvell, Spreadtrum and Icera. Intel's acquisition of Infineon's wireless business leaves Qualcomm, MediaTek, ST-Ericsson, Intel, Broadcom and Renesas as long-term players in the cellular baseband market.

We analyzed this back in May when the original rumour of the Intel/Infineon wireless deal surfaced. Infineon's wireless business is definitely an attractive target for Intel as it gives immediate access to valuable IP and an established customer base. Infineon is a rising star in the W-CDMA baseband market and ranked number two in the W-CDMA baseband market behind Qualcomm (excluding Texas Instruments’ custom baseband business with Nokia). Infineon has so far focused on slim modems and has stayed away from developing ARM-based applications processors. So far Infineon’s niche strategy has paid off, but the time has come for the company to expand its portfolio by offering a wider range of processors to address smartphones, tablets and other connected consumer devices. Although 3G and smartphones are of most interest to Intel, the company is likely to keep Infineon’s 2G business as it provides scale which is crucial to play in the cellular baseband segment.

It will be another year or two before Intel's applications processors are smartphone-ready. Meanwhile, in the next 12 - 18 months Intel can bundle Infineon's 3G platform with all of its notebook and netbook chipsets and gain significant 3G share to undercut Qualcomm and ST-Ericsson's non-handset offerings. But both Qualcomm and ST-Ericsson appear to have a two year technology lead over Infineon in chipsets for HSPA+ and LTE; Infineon is expected to introduce its first HSPA+ chipset in 2011 and an LTE chipset in 2012. MediaTek’s grey handset chip business may come under pressure from Infineon in the future if Intel expands its field application engineering force in China. Likewise, Broadcom is expected to come under pressure from this deal but should survive with help from its other businesses such as connectivity and digital home. This acquisition will also likely affect stand-alone application processor vendors such as Texas Instruments and NVIDIA that currently lack their own 3G / 4G modems. But we believe that it will take another 4-5 years for Intel to integrate basebands into its Atom CPU, if at all.

Infineon's acquisition still doesn’t guarantee Intel's success in the wireless handset market and the company's ultimate success in this market hinges on how soon Intel can come up with power-efficient processors that can stand-up and compete against a host of ARM-based processor vendors. On a positive note, Intel appears to be moving ahead of its other chip competitors in the software area which positions it well against ARM-based processor vendors. The company’s strong software expertise could help it to gain some OEM mindshare. Intel’s uninspiring track record in the wireless market during the last decade suggests that the company has to execute flawlessly this time to make it successful and keep Infineon’s wireless business as independent as possible. Clients can read our eight page analysis of the Intel/Infineon deal here.

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