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4G's Inside Story

LR Mobile Column
LR Mobile Column
LR Mobile Column
7/31/2008

The future of 4G mobile networks is far from certain, but one thing is abundantly clear: Embedded technologies will play a huge role in the upcoming era of ubiquitous broadband mobile connectivity, far larger than the one they have played in WiFi and 3G cellular networks. While today's embedded systems show up almost exclusively in laptops and mobile handsets, 4G-enabling technologies will find their way into a wide range of devices, including anything consumers might use for emerging applications such as mobile payments, location-based services, and other similar functions.

As detailed in the latest edition of Unstrung Insider, "4G Inside: Embedded Modules for Mobile WiMax & LTE," the push toward embedded 4G systems hinges on what is setting up to be a titanic struggle among three of the wireless industry's biggest suppliers of chipsets – Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), and Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) – each with its own vested interest in 4G. The technology battle lines are drawn.

Intel is all over wide-area mobile WiMax, in much the same way it has been all over local-area WiFi. Millions of PC notebooks now contain embedded WiFi modules – a customer base that Intel hopes to significantly expand with embedded mobile WiMax. A powerful force in PC platforms, Intel plans to embed the next-gen technology in every mobile PC as an integral part of its mobile processor platform, beginning possibly later this year.

Ericsson, one of the main suppliers of chipsets to the cellular 3G market, has thrown its support behind LTE, which is in the final phase of standardization. In the interim, Ericsson is supporting High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA) technology as a direct competitor to mobile WiMax. Ericsson, which has set up a unit to push HSPA out to PC manufacturers, expects the technology to be embedded in over half of the more than 200 million mobile PCs that will ship annually by 2011. And the manufacturer expects most of its HSPA customers – if not all – to migrate to LTE.

Qualcomm is the driving force behind Ultra Mobile Broadband (UMB), which has so far drawn little attention from operators. Aware that UMB may never take off, Qualcomm is busy developing LTE chips that provide backward compatibility to existing 3G networks, including W-CDMA and EV-DO. Integrating chipsets with multiple radio technologies is at the heart of the Qualcomm strategy. The company's new Gobi and Snapdragon chipset platforms will offer a broad palette of connectivity capabilities.

For device makers, particularly in the consumer electronics industry, the decision to embed one or more 4G technologies can be disruptive and have a big impact on their product designs – and on their bottom lines. Consequently, they need to have a business model that shows how a possibly disruptive design decision can generate profits.

Device makers will most likely wait as long as they can to choose an embedded 4G strategy, in the hope that the mobile WiMax vs. LTE vs. UMB battle will come to a definitive resolution. But chances are, they will have to make a choice before the 4G technology game plays out. That points to some interesting times ahead in the next-gen mobile sector.

— John Blau, Research Analyst, Unstrung Insider


The report, 4G Inside: Embedded Modules for Mobile WiMax & LTE, is available as part of an annual subscription (12 monthly issues) to Unstrung Insider, priced at $1,595. Individual reports are available for $900. To subscribe, please visit: www.unstrung.com/insider.

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