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Intel Readies GigE PHY ChipIntel Readies GigE PHY Chip

The long-awaited device would free Intel from having to buy Marvell's chips -- but not right away

February 28, 2003

3 Min Read
Intel Readies GigE PHY Chip

Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) reportedly is preparing to launch its Gigabit Ethernet physical-layer device (PHY), a long-awaited development that gives the company all the parts it needs to build Gigabit Ethernet modules.

Intel hasn't disclosed the part publicly, but last week's Intel Developer Forum (IDF) was rife with rumors that the new PHY was being shown privately as part of a Gigabit Ethernet board. Intel officials wouldn't confirm whether this was true.

Until now, Intel has acquired its Gigabit Ethernet PHYs from Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: MRVL), having been dissatisfied with the part developed by acquiree Level One Communications Inc. Analysts have assumed that Intel would develop its own PHY eventually, but as 2002 came to a close, speculation emerged that Intel had given up on its PHY development (see Is Intel's GigE Chip on Hold?).

It's telling, then, that Intel didn't tout the PHY at IDF, which ordinarily is a showcase for Intel's future plans and products. "No releases, no PowerPoints, no keynotes -- nothing," says Charlie Glavin, a semiconductor analyst with ThinkEquity Partners. "It seemed a little odd."

One possible explanation is that the part isn't quite finished yet. Another is that the PHY is being developed from outside Intel's main communications group.

Glavin doesn't believe the new PHY comes from startups Cicada Semiconductor Inc. or Mysticom Ltd. -- both likely candidates, should Intel try to acquire a PHY maker. Instead, it seems the PHY is a tandem effort between Intel's groups in Oregon and Haifa, Israel -- excluding the original Level One team in Sacramento, Calif.

Meanwhile, Marvell has taken steps to strengthen its own standing in Gigabit Ethernet, preparing for the day when Intel becomes self-sufficient. Marvell launched its Yukon controller late last year, after negotiating to lift the exclusivity restrictions from its Intel contract (see Intel/Marvell: Who Was Stood Up? and Marvell Announces Controller).

Marvell's got plenty of time. During yesterday's earnings call with analysts, Marvell CTO George Hervey noted that it will be several quarters before revenues from Yukon exceed those from Intel -- and in the meantime, he said, Marvell and Intel continue to co-develop future Ethernet products.

Even if Intel had a PHY to ship right now, it wouldn't hurt Marvell for months, Glavin says. That's because the Gigabit Ethernet products that will ship this year are already designed and can't switch to a new Intel controller.

"Not until the end of Marvell's third quarter [ending in October] and maybe into the fourth quarter will revenues from Intel start to drop," he says. Those revenues represent roughly 20 percent of Marvell's total, Glavin estimates.

Overall, analysts still see Marvell as a growing force in Ethernet, as it begins to ship both its Yukon device and its Prestera line of Ethernet switches. In fact, they note that Marvell's likely rival in Ethernet is not Intel, but Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) (see Marvell Readies GigE Attack).

One lingering question is whether Intel will want to integrate Gigabit Ethernet functions into its PC chipset, the devices that accompany every PC microprocessor. It would be a typical move for Intel, but if they try it, Marvell and Broadcom will likely say that it's the wrong move -- in part, because they don't offer PC chipsets.

Glavin notes that Intel might not try to do this, however. Because the PHY is apparently developed from outside Intel's main communications group, attaching it to the chipset would be like introducing a third-party chip to the mix, and the results might not work out.

"It'll be an interesting debate, but it'll be a debate for 2004," he concludes.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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