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Intel challenges Broadcom, Marvell et al. for basestation silicon dominance

Intel on Monday announced new chips the company said ought to help it attain a leading position in the market for basestation chipsets by next year.

In doing so, Intel would be pushing against the likes of Broadcom, HiSilicon, Marvell, Qualcomm and Xilinx, which along with Intel are currently some of the main providers of silicon for cellular basestations, according to Patrick Moorhead and Will Townsend, analysts with Moor Insights & Strategy, as well as Dell'Oro analyst Stefan Pongratz.

Intel said its new Atom P5900 platform, which carried the code-name Snow Ridge while in development, is its first 10 nanometer SoC (system on a chip) for baseband processing in wireless basestations, addressing control plane processing and packet processing requirements. In a release, the company boasted the product "is designed to meet critical 5G network needs, including high bandwidth and low latency to deliver what's required for 5G basestations today and in the future."

Importantly, Intel said its new chips are already headed into products by Ericsson, Nokia and ZTE, and that they would also fit into open RAN products. That's noteworthy considering the global wireless industry is increasingly embracing open RAN network designs.

The major radio access network system vendor missing from that customer list is, of course, Huawei, the world's biggest maker of cellular basestations. The Chinese vendor doesn't need Intel's product as it has a supply agreement with its subsidiary HiSilicon for basestation chipsets, which is hardly a surprise given the US government's current trade restrictions between US suppliers and the Chinese vendor and the sensitivity of 5G market success in the global political arena.

But even without Huawei, that's a strong client list and, based on demand for its new chips, it expects it will be the market leader in 5G basestation baseband silicon by 2021, with a 40% market segment share (MSS), one year ahead of previous targets.

Intel believes the market for 5G network infrastructure silicon will be worth US$25 billion by 2023, and that up to 6 million 5G base stations could be in play by 2024.

"As telco network infrastructure shifts to being built on commercial off-the-shelf computing, Intel is rapidly becoming a key player in 5G networks. Part of this is down to rapid development of the chipsets themselves, but it also relates to Intel's growing strength in software, security and AI," Martin Garner, an analyst with CCS Insight, wrote in response to questions from Light Reading. "This is an impressive achievement given that Intel was not a relevant supplier just a few years ago."

Intel famously exited the market for chipsets for 5G smartphones last year, subsequently selling its operation in that sector to Apple for $1 billion. That move essentially paved the way for Qualcomm to step in with its own products and scoop up Intel's one main customer: Apple. Apple's forthcoming iPhones are widely expected to support 5G with Qualcomm silicon.

At the time of its withdrawal from the smartphone space, Intel said it would continue to play in the 5G industry, albeit with products targeted at other areas of the market. The company's Atom P5900 platform – released at what would have been the start of the MWC trade show if it had not been canceled over fears of the COVID-19 virus – essentially underscores Intel's continued interest in the 5G market.

The Atom P5900 isn't the only product that Intel announced today. The company also released: Its second-generation Xeon Scalable processors that is suitable for virtualized core networks; a structured ASIC for 5G network acceleration; and its Ethernet 700 Series Network Adapter. The company also talked up its position in the growing wave toward edge computing in the telco space.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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