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New 5G Chips Put Huawei at the Forefront

Robert Clark
News Analysis
Robert Clark
9/4/2019

With the dramas around Huawei's supply chain, it has been easy to overlook the company's rapid rise in handset chips.

This month it will unveil its next 5G device chip, the Kirin 990, and its flagship Mate 30 phone, powered by the current Kirin 985 chipset.

Both are markers for Huawei as a new chip powerhouse and underline how, with Intel's exit from the market earlier this year, the sector's center of gravity is shifting toward Asia.

Aside from Qualcomm, the market leader, the only companies so far to have developed chipsets for 5G devices are Huawei, Samsung, MediaTek and Chinese state-owned firm Unisoc Communications.

The US-China tech war appears to have accelerated a trend that was already underway.

Qualcomm boss Steve Mollenkopf has said that the dispute is encouraging Chinese customers to shift to local supply and has led to fewer China orders.

Huawei's semiconductor subsidiary HiSilicon has been designing device chips for more than a decade, although its first significant product appeared only about seven years ago.

Until the US blacklisting announced in May, HiSilicon competed against Qualcomm to be chosen for Huawei phones.

Now its Kirin and Balong chips might be the parent company's only choices, although they don't appear to be a big disadvantage.

The Kirin 990 is tipped to be Huawei's first 5G system-on-a-chip (SOC). The commercial release date is unclear, but some reports have said the company is aiming for year-end.

That would be a jump on Qualcomm and MediaTek, which are targeting the first half of 2020 for commercial release.


Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on
Light Reading.


But HiSilicon is not the only Chinese player with 5G chip capability.

Unisoc Communications, a unit of state-controlled tech conglomerate Tsinghua Unigroup, launched its 5G chipset Makalu at MWC in February.

A supplier to smaller handset makers such as Lenovo, Hisense and ZTE, Unisoc emerged six years ago as part of a government drive to consolidate the semiconductor sector. It acquired two Chinese chip designers, Spreadtrum and RDA Microelectronics, for a total of $2.5 billion.

In the last two years it has tapped a number of ex-Huawei executives, including CEO Steve Chu, and has tipped in some $200 million to revamp its product line.

Unisoc believes it can make a low-cost SOC commercially available in the second half of 2020, Nikkei Asian Review reported last month.

As Nikkei wrote, the ability to do that in this timeframe would represent a "significant acceleration of its ambitions" after its partnership with Intel folded earlier this year.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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mfox@inflectionpointresearch.com
[email protected]
9/5/2019 | 1:09:07 PM
Huawei vs. ZTE et al
I think we have beaten the horse to death almost, but wanted to give a little more color on the competitive nature between the Chinese companies.   Although the Chinese government has a stake everywhere it seems, and others know the details better than I, that doesn't mean that the Chinese telecom OEMs play nice with each other.    Huawei has been the golden child and China's path into telecom infrastructure worldwide, but they hate ZTE and ZTE hates them.

I have many friends who call on both companies to sell them chips, and Huawei never misses an opportunity to try to bribe them too not sell to ZTE by promising them more business at Huawei.   And then later that night my friend received the blanket email from the Chinese government reminding them of the anti-corruption practices.  Just hilariious.  Hope you enjoyed that one...
ajwdct1
ajwdct1
9/5/2019 | 12:21:48 PM
Re: Nice to have a baseband chip but without RF it doesn't matter...
Does the Chinese government own all tech companies in China-even those publicly traded?

It owns nearly half of closely held Zhongxingxin—which in turn has a 30% stake in ZTE—via a complex ownership structure that places its stake in two state-owned technology companies. Zhongxingxin's stake in ZTE has been a source of unease for U.S. officials. It was cited in a 2012 Congressional report that concluded American companies shouldn't do business with ZTE. ZTE has said its state-backed parent used to be a larger shareholder—with a 44% stake in 2004, for example.  https://www.wsj.com/articles/ztes-state-owner-to-cut-its-stake-11552477396

And of course, the government owns the three largest telecom carriers- China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom who are seeking to partner with each other. https://techblog.comsoc.org/2019/08/26/china-mobile-carriers-consider-5g-partnership/

No one really knows how much of Huawei they own as it's a private company.  However, I'm sure that the Chinese government helped fund Huawei's R&D and gave them preferential treatment.

China's IMT-2020 (5G) Promotion Group is the major platform to promote the research of 5G in China. Its members include the leading operators, vendors, universities, and research institutes in the field of mobile communications.  That Group is surely the entity that gets all Chinese companies working on 5G together to share information and specs.http://www.imt-2020.org.cn/en/category/65573

Again, China's IMT 2020 RIT spec has been progressed by ITU-R WP5D at its July 2019 Brazil meeting.  https://techblog.comsoc.org/2019/07/17/itu-r-wp5d-brazil-meeting-imt-2020-rit-srits-from-3gpp-china-korea-advance-nufront-submits-new-rit/

 

 

 


 
mfox@inflectionpointresearch.com
[email protected]
9/4/2019 | 8:47:57 PM
Re: Nice to have a baseband chip but without RF it doesn't matter...
You are correct that HiSilicon has no plans to sell on the merchant market, that is clear.  I think my point isn't getting through re. the Mate 30, and other new Huawei phones, prospects outside of China.   As the post below suggests from a radio perspective Huawei has a problem outside of China with the ban, but from a user perspective unless Google is granted a license by the BIS they can't support services on new Huawei phones, which leaves them w/o a usable OS.  Huawei says they have their own OS but there is no App eccosystem to rival Google or iOS.   Also filtering requirements for many international bands require BAW filter technology from QRVO which is again unavailable. 

Note that this is one carrot the US government can use in the trade negociations as a Huawei phone by itself is hard to call a security risk, unlike core networking gear or even 5G RAN.  Note that Huawei recently announced a huge new router with 768 400G interfaces based on the new Broadcom Jericho 2 chipsets.  Don't expect that license to sell to be granted by the BIS...   Also note that Huawei runs on Oracle and uses Synopsis and Mentor tools.  They will have to switch to SAP and kiss goodby their ability to design state of the art new chips if the US really wants to play hardball.  The only other EDA company is Cadence, also based in the US...

The Chinnese government ownes everyone, including ZTE and Spreadtrum so of course they are all sharing information to reduce their depencency on western technology.  That is ultimately their goal. 
ajwdct1
ajwdct1
9/4/2019 | 5:56:59 PM
Re: Nice to have a baseband chip but without RF it doesn't matter...
My understanding is that Huawei does NOT plan to sell its 5G silicon/SoC on the merchant market, but instead will use one version for its 5G phones/end points and another (multi-port) version for its base stations.

Also, there will be different IMT 2020 RITs (Radio Interface Technologies) for China, Korea and the rest of the world via 3GPP Release 15 & 16.  It is likely that Huawei (under US company ban) and Unisoc will only be able to use their 5G silicon for the China market.

Finally, I'm very suspicious of Unisoc being successful in IMT 2020 chips/chip sets, as they haven't attended any ITU-R WP5D meetings where the 5G radio standard is being developed.  Where then are they getting their detailed information from- the Chinese government?

 

Note that Huawei and ZTE are key contributors to IMT 2020 and also to 3GPP release 15 and 16.  Hence, those companies have a thorough understanding of the 5G standard which will surely lead to better implementations in STANDARD COMPLIANT 5G base stations and phones/endpoints.
Glfrost
Glfrost
9/4/2019 | 2:06:46 PM
Huawei 5G Misfire & IP Theft
Reality is that core Huawei components in basestation chip sets as well as the phone development came from my work that was stolen in a convoluted scheme. That aside, the direction they’ve taken ignored key security and radio elements that dramatically change the entire 3GPP direction. This is the entire package from handsets to radios to fiber to “inflight” processing and significant security features carriers are ignoring. I will be challenging the validity of several Huawei patents and also filing a complaint with the WTO and the ITU. The fact is a lot of my work, papers and other material predates the iPhone.
mfox@inflectionpointresearch.com
[email protected]
9/4/2019 | 1:21:30 PM
Nice to have a baseband chip but without RF it doesn't matter...
While Huawei is a leader in baseband, and also SEPs via their work with 3GPP, it really doesn't matter as while currently on the Entity List they don't have access to the Google Mobile Services (GMS) not to mention critical RF parts from US suppliers Qorvo and Skyworks so they can't build a phone to sell outside of China.   Samsung says thank you very much...
bosco_pcs
bosco_pcs
9/4/2019 | 1:18:21 PM
A Dumb Question
Why won't others develop 5G chipset akin to Qualcomm's or Huawei's (let's assume Huawei's is similar to the other Chinese set). And Samsung and Mediatek being the minor players? Is it because the barrier of IP entry erected by QCOM? If QCOM has IP hegemony, why won't it go after Huawei? 
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