LTE Chips Away at Qualcomm's CDMA Royalty

Ever since Verizon Wireless laid out its timeline for single-mode LTE smartphones, investors have been concerned for one company that may not be as excited about the transition: Qualcomm.

The chip giant, of course, gets a hefty royalty from 3G CDMA chip sales since it invented the technology in 1990. Verizon Wireless is its biggest customer, so losing its business will be a blow to the steady stream of fees it has collected ever since. It's not a new concern for Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM), but one that's become heightened as Verizon has grown more confident that voice-over LTE (VoLTE) will let it build LTE-only handsets in about a year. (See CTIA: Verizon Pushes for Single-Mode LTE.)

Ditching CDMA benefits Verizon for many reasons, a big one being that it will bring down the cost of subsidies on VoLTE smartphones. On the flip side, it will likely make devices still bridging CDMA and LTE that much more expensive as Qualcomm looks to recoup lost revenue. (See Verizon Envisions Cheaper VoLTE Subsidies.)

"The move to VoLTE is inevitable and will impact what has been a long and prosperous royalty stream for Qualcomm," BTIG Research analyst Walter Piecyk writes in an email to Light Reading.

For its part, Qualcomm isn't too worried as it's already moved on to tackling LTE's global roaming challenges in newer generations of its chipsets. (See Mobile Migraine: Carrier Aggregation Roaming .)

A Qualcomm spokeswoman says that the company's patent position will let it charge about 3.25 percent for single-mode LTE, just for the essential patent portfolio. So, while it's possible it may see a step down in the rate of royalties over time, she says, it's comfortable about the position it's in "with more than 65 single-mode OFDM/OFDMA licensees."

There's another reason Qualcomm isn't sweating it, too. While Verizon says VoLTE-only handsets will be the norm near the end of 2014, that may be overly ambitious, Piecyk predicts. Verizon has already pushed back its VoLTE launch timetable several times in a bid to get it exactly right, so it's reasonable to expect it to take longer than anticipated for it to be comfortable with LTE-only devices, too. (See Verizon Promises Voice-Over-LTE in 2014.)

"New wireless implementations tend to take longer than promised, especially the ones that impact voice," Piecyk says. "Verizon's timeline already appears to be stretching and, with a resurgent T-Mobile and Sprint, they might not want to risk a poor consumer reaction to a technology evolution."

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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jtfisher56 8/29/2013 | 11:31:32 PM
Re: What about Verizon? well said.  i also wouldn't chalk the 98% of POPs touched as sufficient "nationwide" coverage, as we have a massive effort presently on small cell deployments for both coverage and capacity reasons related to 3G.  If you go full-blown single-mode LTE phone- given the penetration rates of smarpthones in the US- you'll likely be getting a former 3G or multi-mode customer that was used to failry robust coverage wherever they went.  I don't know if it makes sense for Verizon to meet that timelime the author of this post cited- although her reasons behind coming out with a VoLTE phone have merit.  Lastly, are single-mode LTE chips even in high-volume production presently?  Aren't most OEMs looking for multi-mode SoCs... simply because 1.) it makes economic sense when trying to sell higher functioning mid/low end smartphones in emerging markets in a cost-effective way (where the smartphone upside actually is...) and 2. to milan03's point, essentially allowing the OEMs to preserve their investments in the SoC as wireless technology upgrades happen in certain regions and/or as consumers travel internationally.  So would supply for these specific single-mode LTE chips be sufficient?  All very interesting and appreciate the insights from everyone

kaop 8/26/2013 | 1:57:05 AM
Walter "Ugly" Piecyk/BTIG is a well-known CDMA basher I would take Walter "Ugly" Piecyk's opinion with a grain of salt.  Majority of Qualcomm's business are in China which is still CDMA. Qualcomm's yoy revenue growth is at a 35% rate.  How many large cap companies grow at that amazing pace?
alrefaee 8/24/2013 | 2:58:07 AM
Re: What about Verizon? @pzernik: QCOM just sold Omnitracs so the dream of being in every M2M and growing that revenue is captured in the $800M windfall. As far as multimode phones for Europe roaming agreements are already in place; the problem is that they're expensive. That will change quickly though; So while I don't underestimate QCOM's planning and strategic positioning on having a growing portfolio, QCOM's options are still more limited than before on the royalty stream.
DanJones 8/23/2013 | 1:14:56 PM
Re: What about Verizon? LTE-only phones still make little sense to me, even traveling in the US. An LTE-only tablet seems much more likely first to me.
milan03 8/23/2013 | 12:30:09 PM
Re: What about Verizon? I think that you'll be surprised.

VoLTE phones will still need to have UMTS fallback for global roaming. They're avoiding high licensing cost of CDMA, providing VoLTE ONLY service in their native coverage, and when native coverage isn't available, GSM/UMTS roaming kicks in. 

AT&T/Verizon never had 3G roaming since they're providing incompatable technologies, and back in a day you couldn't really pack both baseband processors in a portable device. 

Most subs wouldn't ever have to know or worry about this. Also, if VoLTE phones didn't have GSM/UMTS fallback, they would've be rendered unusable when traveling overseas.
Sarah Thomas 8/23/2013 | 12:12:06 PM
Re: What about Verizon? That's a good thing for AT&T and other GSM carriers, but won't help Verizon out. It has to do CDMA/LTE combo or go VoLTE-only. I hope Verizon and AT&T are hashing out roaming deals, but I strongly doubt it. Didn't happen on 3G; probably won't on 4G, IMO.
milan03 8/23/2013 | 11:51:44 AM
Re: What about Verizon? Don't forget that VoLTE devices will have UMTS fallback, just no CDMA. So we don't know if Verizon is already working on roaming deals with AT&T and other GSM/UMTS partners.
Sarah Thomas 8/23/2013 | 11:51:19 AM
Re: What about Sprint? That's true, MarkC73, even if Sprint gets flagship devices, it will hurt if it it's months after its competitors get them. It'll hurt even worse if they're more expensive because of the chip requirements, too.

Sarah Thomas 8/23/2013 | 11:49:15 AM
Re: What about Verizon? Verizon recently announced that it has covered more than 98 percent of its footprint with LTE, so, for all intents and purposes, that's nationwide coverage. That's what it needed to feel confident in launching VoLTE. It will do that early next year and has said VoLTE-only handsets are coming late next year. I tend to agree with Walter though -- that deadline may get pushed back again. Even with nationwide coverage (which, let's face it, isn't up to par in all parts of the country), it still has to perfect the voice experience.

I agree with you, pzernik, on not underestimating Qualcomm. It wasn't banking on CDMA for its future success, but it did own that market -- it gets some pretty hefty royalties from it.
Liz Greenberg 8/23/2013 | 11:42:32 AM
Re: What about Verizon? Well said @pzernik! QCOM has never sat on its laurels and isn't now. Being able to roam is paramount and users are going to be in shock when they find that they have the wrong flavor (band) of LTE as they travel.
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