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Intel buys VIA’s CDMA modems, could lure Apple

With all the talk about CDMA-based operators like Verizon moving to LTE, it is easy to forget that there is still a huge installed base of CDMA networks and devices, and will be for many years to come. Intel is to acquire the CDMA assets of Taiwan’s VIA Telecom, one of the only non-Qualcomm companies which ever successfully built a CDMA modem business, to fill this gap in its own wireless portfolio.

The wireless chip activities which Intel acquired from Infineon included GSM, W-CDMA and LTE technology but no CDMA, and according to Will Strauss of chip analyst firm Forward Concepts, that has kept the firm out of some important handset chip contracts.

Any smartphone maker which wants to sell to Verizon, Sprint, KDDI, China Telecom – and a host of other CDMA operators in the Americas and Asia – needs to be able to support the Qualcomm-dominated technology. There are LTE-only modules, and of course a lot of handsets are sold to W-CDMA/LTE carriers, but most OEMs will target both the major 3G variants, and even create worldphones.

Strauss believes that the lack of CDMA led to Asustek replacing Intel’s modem with Qualcomm’s earlier this year, though the PC maker had previously been Intel’s largest cellphone customer. But now, Intel has the raw materials in place, at least, to create a worldphone modem like those offered by Qualcomm and MediaTek.

The latter has gained a lot of ground with suppliers to China Telecom because of its decision to buy CDMA chips from VIA and integrate them into its LTE offerings. Marvell has SoCs with five basebands, including China Mobile’s TD-SCDMA, but no CDMA, highlighting how tightly Qualcomm has managed to keep control of the platform it invented (of course, Marvell is backing out of this market anyway).

VIA, courtesy of the MediaTek deal, had finally succeeded in enabling a significant alternative to Qualcomm in CDMA, even at this late stage in the game. Of course, that deal may now be in jeopardy once the Intel acquisition goes through.

Most important to Intel must be the much-rumored deal with Apple. There is rising speculation that the company will get a place a lower end iPhone later this year or (more probably) in 2016, with Qualcomm retaining the modem slots in the top end models. However, such a breakthrough for Intel would almost certainly require a CDMA capability so that Apple could offer the purported midrange device in all markets.

Announcing the deal during Intel’s earnings call this week, CEO Brian Krzanich said of the modem field: “It’s not as much about how many players are in it, it’s about keeping that yearly cadence and keeping the technologies in place at the leading edge.”

As Strauss pointed out, both VIA and Intel modems use the CEVA DSP (digital signal processor) core. He expects to see the first silicon with integrated CDMA from Intel by mid-2016.

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