Qualcomm M&A Move Signals New Fixed Broadband Battle

Acquisition of struggling fixed broadband chip vendor sets it against Broadcom and Intel in the battle to win business in the xDSL and G.fast device and infrastructure market.

August 11, 2015

6 Min Read
Qualcomm M&A Move Signals New Fixed Broadband Battle

Qualcomm may currently be focused more on saving money rather than spending it but that doesn't mean it's blind to new strategic opportunities that involve some capital outlay.

The wireless chip giant is currently executing its Strategic Realignment Plan, a cost-cutting plan announced a few weeks ago that is designed to reduce the company's annual costs by $1.4 billion. (See Qualcomm Restructures to Cut $1.4B in Costs .)

But at the end of last week it announced it would be spending money rather than saving more, though the figure is less eye-catching -- a total of about $47 million (plus the assumption of outstanding debts) to acquire fixed broadband chip vendor Ikanos Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: IKAN) (See Qualcomm to Acquire Chipmaker Ikanos.)

If that seems like a low price, there's a reason. Ikanos is a pretty big name in broadband components but it is currently punching below its weight: In 2012 it generated revenues of $126 million but that had shrunk to $48.4 million in 2014.

That purchase price is small change for a company of Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM)'s fiscal heft, even if it is in cost-cutting mode: The company expects its fiscal full year revenues (ending late September 2015) to be in the region of $25 billion.

And Ikanos isn't going to move Qualcomm's sales needle with annual revenues of less than $50 million. Its latest financial report, issued Aug. 6, showed revenues of just $11.1 million for the three months ending June 28 and a net loss of $12.3 million as this earnings release shows.

Ikanos has been struggling for some time: In late September 2014 the company was effectively propped up by a $16.5 million cash injection from its main investor, Tallwood Venture Capital , and long-time customer Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), which also agreed to loan Ikanos $10 million and engage in joint development of new broadband products. (Given Alcatel-Lucent's own financial situation 11 months ago -- it had just saved itself from bankruptcy, as CEO Michel Combes admitted to Light Reading late last year -- that was something of a worrying sign for Ikanos.)

So the move is a strategic one for Qualcomm. The wireless chip giant already has WiFi chip assets as the mainstay of its Qualcomm Atheros subsidiary, which is making the Ikanos acquisition. Those WiFi chips are used in home networking devices, such as smart home gateways, and in the wide area network, in public access small cells. The idea is to combine those existing assets with the xDSL, G.fast and gateway (including cable) chips that Ikanos has in its arsenal to offer an extended range of products that encompass the fixed network "last mile" between the customer premises and the central office, whether that be a street cabinet or, in the case of G.fast in particular, a distribution point much closer to the customer. (See A Guide to G.fast and Ikanos Unveils New Gateway Chipsets .)

That's going to be a neat addition for Qualcomm given how major network operators are preparing for an integrated fixed/mobile networking future that is going to be very reliant on having high-speed connectivity to millions of distributed elements: An integrated WiFi/G.fast platform for small cells and gateways that can deliver end user connectivity and backhaul capabilities could be quite a compelling proposition.

In addition, Ikanos might be struggling but it does have some business of value. Not only is it tight with AlcaLu, which is one of the three major infrastructure players looking likely to dominate the fixed broadband access equipment market -- Adtran Inc. (Nasdaq: ADTN) and Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. being the other two -- but it has an interesting position in some key markets, in particular Japan and South Korea, where it has cornered the market for chips that power the infrastructure developed using the VDSL2 30a standard that are showing signs of being able to achieve Gigabit broadband speeds over copper tails (albeit of short length, up to 100 meters – see this press release.)

Want to know more about Gigabit broadband developments in Europe? Then join us at Light Reading's Gigabit Europe 2015 event on Sept. 29-30 in Munich: It's where beer and broadband come together!

Of course, Qualcomm will be looking to build a much bigger business than the one it will inherit from Ikanos once the deal is closed, which is expected before the end of 2015 (though the deal has attracted a number of class action claims from "shareholder litigation" specialists...).

And it's that prospect -- Qualcomm putting its marketing, operational and R&D heft behind the existing and prospective Ikanos technology -- that will have attracted the attention not only of prospective customers (of which there are many, particularly in the home gateway/smart home device market) but also the companies that will feel threatened by Qualcomm's move.

Those companies in particular are Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM), Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) and Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: MRVL): Broadcom because it is the incumbent fixed broadband chip giant that has integrated wireless/fixed components ambitions of its own; Intel because it also recently bought its way into the same market with the acquisition of Lantiq; and Marvell because it is also developing G.fast products to target the next generation of fixed broadband access equipment developers. In the space of a year Broadcom will have found itself pitching against Intel and Qualcomm for business that previously it may have regarded as low-hanging fruit. (See Intel Targets 'Smart Home' With Lantiq Acquisition, Lantiq Intros 8-port FTTdp Chipset and G.fast Plugs the Gap for Gigabit Cities.)

Of course, Broadcom is itself in the process of being acquired, so maybe this is a good time to pick a fight with it. (See Avago Seals Deal to Buy Broadcom for $37B and What Will Avago Do With Broadcom?)

Once the Qualcomm deal is closed (presuming that's what happens) it'll be interesting to see how the marketing wars develop, especially as the G.fast market develops as part of the race towards Gigabit broadband delivery.

It also raises the question of whether Qualcomm's move might be the catalyst for some M&A maneuvers around Sckipio Technologies , which has been making a name for itself with its G.fast chip developments. It has been attracting attention in the broadband market and is already working with Lantiq/Intel… but what it doesn't have is a track record and an existing customer base. That might not stop some speculative approaches though. (See G.fast Chip Startup Raises $17M, BT Backs G.fast for Backhaul and ONOS Expands Its Reach on Internet2.)

As I've said a number of times this year, the fixed broadband market hasn't been this interesting for years!

— Ray Le Maistre, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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