BY CAROLINE GABRIEL
Despite exit from cellular basebands, high end smartphones are still its biggest growth driver, thanks to WiFi
Broadcom may have failed in the smartphone modem market, but the growth in high end handsets is still driving its growth, along with its traditional broadband access offerings. However, while the smartphone segment is proving more resilient than many analysts predicted last year - also boosting ARM in the last quarter - it is increasingly hard to squeeze more profits out of it as the sales pattern shifts to emerging markets and featurephone upgraders.
Broadcom delivered solid results for its first quarter, and predicted a return to more significant growth in the current Q2. Its Q115 revenue was $2.06bn, up 3.7% year-on-year, though down 4% on the last quarter of 2014. Connectivity and other chips for high end smartphones were the most significant contributor, said the company, along with broadband access products. Those two categories together delivered a 13% year-on-year increase in revenue.
Net income was $209m, which was sharply down on $390m in Q414 but up on the year-ago figure of $165m.
In a preliminary statement on its second quarter, Broadcom said it expected to return to sustained growth and to report $2.1bn in Q2, just about meeting Wall Street predictions. The exit from the lossmaking modem business is helping to improve profits and reduce expenses.
"Our connectivity business continues to strengthen with two sequential quarters of year-over-year revenue growth [driven by] the ramp of new highly integrated products such as a location hub…and significant customer interest in 5G WiFi chips," Broadcom CEO Scott McGregor said.
He also singled out small cells as a source of future growth - the firm acquired one of the pioneers of small cell SoCs, Percello, back in 2010. This could be taken as a sign of long-sightedness, though much of Broadcom's success has been based on its excellent sense of timing, entering markets just as they are about to explode (as it did, spectacularly, in 802.11g WiFi), so it may be more likely that the firm expected small cells to gain volume more quickly than they did. Now, however, the market really is seeing mass deployment, especially in homes, and Broadcom should be able to profit from that.
Its modem acquisitions have, of course, proved to be complete miscalculations, rare at Broadcom. Initially it bought former WiMAX baseband specialist Beceem, then added Renesas Mobile (itself based around its parent's acquisition of Nokia's inhouse modem business). Only months after the second deal, however, Broadcom gave up hope of stealing significant share in Qualcomm's heartland and in July 2014 said it had decided to exit, laying off about 2,500 people and taking on restructuring charges of $230m spread over the ensuing 12 months.
At the time, McGregor sought to cheer up investors by showing them how Broadcom
would look "when the baseband exit is in the rearview mirror", promising growth (above the sector's overall rate) in every other major area of activity, and "a market lead in chips for DSL, cable, satellite and fiber".
Three quarters later, shareholders can see some signs of that upbeat outlook coming true. Much of the $100m attached to the baseband business actually stayed within the company, said Broadcom, as baseband partners chose to continue working with the firm on the communications side (WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS and so on). "The theoretical worse case did not materialize, and we've grown since then," McGregor said.
Despite relinquishing the modem slot, smartphones remain important to growth, with key drivers including the uptake of 802.11ac and 2x2 MIMO WiFi in high end phones, with the adoption curve particularly sharp among Chinese OEMs.
"You used to think of phones in China in the low and mid-range, but now Xiaomi, Huawei, and Lenovo are focusing more on the high end market. There is an increased opportunity in those customers. They really want the better specs they get from our products," McGregor told the Q1 analyst call.
Broadband revenue was primarily driven by pay-TV, upgrades to video cells, set-top boxes and the spread of GPON networks in China, said the firm.
"If you want to design wins today you have to have leading products with HEVC and 4K….and Broadcom was first there with that technology," McGregor said.
This reflects some of the shifts of emphasis which Broadcom announced in the wake of its cellular modem decision. It said at the time that it was leading the world in HEVC Ultra-HD set-top box chips, with McGregor claiming that MSOs and their set-top providers were all heading down that route in time for 2015.
Another important move is from 10 Gigabit to 25 Gigabit Ethernet for the enterprise and with 50 Gigabit on its drawing board (it is applying pressure for the world to standardize on its approach).
The network infrastructure business is also in a buoyant phase, with revenue up 6% year-on-year to $631m, largely driven by data center switch-chips.
By Maury Wood, Principal Analyst
Wi-Fi infrastructure has been evolving in two ways, in terms of performance and of usability. A significant wave of hotspot upgrades is under way, driven by the uptake of 802.11ac and of Hotspot 2.0/Next Generation Hotspot. These two technology shifts are the most important in the shift of public Wi-Fi from best effort towards carrier-grade.
2x2 MIMO 802.11ac is now a standard feature in new smartphones, phablets, tablets and notebook computers. By early 2015, new iOS and Android radio firmware will enable Multi User MIMO functionality in smartphones, potentially doubling Wi-Fi throughput as 11ac Wave 2 Access Points are deployed. This article highlights some of the key findings of the latest and unique report entitled “Wi-Fi Blasts Ahead with 11ac Wave 2 Chipsets” published this week by EJL Wireless Research, a research partner of Maravedis.
Promise of Gigabit Wi-Fi
Consumer client devices and access points (both consumer broadband gateways and enterprise-class / carrier-class) using 11ac Wave 2 technology promise nearly instantaneous (very low latency) data transfers with high Quality of Experience / Quality of Service. They will be capable of supporting multiple ultra high definition streaming video flows, including UHD “telepresence” video conferencing flows, as well as hundreds of clients per AP. Additionally, 11ac Wave 2 client devices and access points will offer increasingly robust and comprehensive wireless plus wired security as well as content-aware traffic engineering features.
Complex System Design Risks
Semiconductor companies who can supply both Wi-Fi radios and companion digital System-on-Chip (SoC) processors plus the software and system reference designs are at an enormous advantage over microchip companies who can only supply the digital SoC processor. Wi-Fi systems, such as access points and wireless broadband gateways, are extremely complex hardware (requiring digital, RF and mixed-signal integrated circuits) and embedded software systems. The overwhelming majority of WLAN equipment OEMs are uninterested in attempting to integrate these complex systems using radios and processors from different suppliers. A good illustration of this complexity is the Netgear R7500 Nighthawk X4 consumer WLAN router, which integrates the Qualcomm IPQ8064 with the Quantenna QSR1000 radio, and despite this combination of “best-in-class” silicon components, does not achieve performance that is superior to Broadcom’s chipset (radios and networking processor).
Integrated System Solutions Rule The Roost
Embedded software is frequently the critical determinant of Wi-Fi system performance, and suppliers of both radios and companion processors deliver optimized system software, as well as comprehensive system-level application / software integration engineering support to their customers. For this key reason, this report does not include analysis of general purpose embedded processors from AppliedMicro, Cavium, Freescale (including the Comcerto C2200 and QorIQ T1020), and LSI Logic, none of whom offer companion Wi-Fi radio products.
Super Smart Access Points Plus Storage
The purpose-built Wi-Fi access point networking processors most recently announced by Broadcom, Qualcomm and Marvell have enormously powerful general purpose multi-core ARM CPUs and specialized accelerator engines, and (concurrent with Wave 2 radio performance enhancements) herald a new era ofsuper-smart access points able to run multi-Gbps line rate unified threat management, adaptive / intelligent QoS, continuous spectral analysis and cognitive RF interference avoidance, deep packet inspection and other advanced embedded applications. This order-of-magnitude lift in access point compute capacity is occurring simultaneously with the trend towards controller-less cloud-managed enterprise AP architectures, as well as the trends toward Network Function Virtualization (NFV) and Software Defined Networking (SDN).
Broadcom – Market Leader
Among the top 30 best performing (using maximum 5 GHz downlink throughput as the metric) 11ac Wave 1 and early Wave 2 WLAN routers, using test results from Small Net Builder (www.smallnetbuilder.com), Broadcom chipsets occupies 22 slots (including 8 of the top 10), Qualcomm occupies 7 slots, and Marvell occupies 1 slot in results posted in October 2014. We believe that Broadcom is the performance leader in Wave 1 Wi-Fi chipsets today.
With more than 100 known 802.11ac production design wins, Broadcom is the current leading supplier of Wave 1 802.11ac chipsets (radios and companion networking processors), but Qualcomm (with 58 known 802.11ac Wave 1 production design wins) is now poised to threaten Broadcom’s leadership market share in 2H15 and 1H16 with strong recent Wave 2 product announcements. Broadcom is currently under competitive pressure to announce 11ac Wave 2 radios and upgraded fully carrier-class StrataGX processors.
Wave 2.5 Radios and RF PAs in 2H15
Announced Wave 2 11ac radios (from Qualcomm and Quantenna) do not have support for 160 MHz or 80 MHz + 80 MHz bonded channels. EJL Wireless Research terms next generation 11ac radios with 160 MHz bonded channel support as “Wave 2.5”, and forecasts this capability will appear in 11ac radios announced in 2H15. As the FCC, ETSI and other international regulatory bodies open up additional 5 GHz spectrum for Wi-Fi use, this will become a more important feature (potentially doubling maximum PHY data rate). Companion RF front-end ICs with adequate linearity performance to support 160 MHz channels are likely to be announced from suppliers such as SkyWorks and Qorvo (RFMD / TriQuint) in that timeframe. This report also compares the cutting-edge infrastructure radios and Wi-Fi networking SoC processors from the nine suppliers covered.
Download the brochure of this must-have report.
By Caroline Gabriel, Research Director, Maravedis-Rethink
The latest R&D project in 60GHz spectrum comes from Samsung, which can transfer a 1Gbyte movie in three seconds. However, as the speed wars heat up in WiFi, all these data rates are going to need backhaul support, an issue Broadcom and others are seeking to address through new Ethernet standards.
The race to break speed records in WiFi is almost as intense as it is in cellular, and Samsung is a prominent name in both. The Korean firm has been demonstrating ‘5G’ prototypes hitting gigabit speeds, but WiFi can support even higher data rates, and the company says it has achieved up to tenfold increase on current speeds.
In both WiFi and cellular R&D, the key to blistering speeds is usually the combination of techniques such as advanced MIMO, with high frequency spectrum. Samsung says it has developed a version of WiGig (the WiFi-like standard for the 60GHz band) which boosts the current maximum theoretical data rate for a consumer device fivefold – and in terms of real world average speeds, the gap is 10 times.
The prototype system enables a 1Gbyte movie to be transferred in under three seconds and uncompressed high definition video to be streamed in real time. Like other next generation WiFi efforts, Samsung says its technology removes the gap between theoretical and actual speeds, and of course it will hope that its breakthrough will give it an influential position in emerging standards, as well as differentiation for its own future products.
“Samsung has successfully overcome the barriers to the commercialization” of the 60GHz WiFi technology, claimed Kim Chang Yong, head of a Samsung R&D center, in a statement. “New and innovative changes await Samsung’s next generation devices, while new possibilities have been opened up for the future development of WiFi technology.”
Amid rising competition in its heartland smartphone business, Samsung is investing in R&D in many areas which could extend its business model, including software and media platforms, enterprise platforms and cutting edge infrastructure for ‘5G’, which is expected to include technologies derived both from LTE and WiFi. The first products to be targeted with 60GHz WiFi are likely to be audiovisual home and mobile media devices, telecoms infrastructure and medical systems, said Samsung.
Samsung’s rivals are all working on enhancing WiFi for higher speed and better quality of experience in future. For instance, Huawei recently demonstrated 10Gbps connections in conventional 5GHz spectrum.
However, the faster WiFi gets, the more challenging its backhaul issues will be. With that in mind, Broadcom, HP and Cisco are drumming up interest in dramatically speeding up gigabit Ethernet, to keep up with the pace of change in WiFi.
The two giants claim there is a growing need for standard physical layers running at 2.5Gbps and 5Gbps, to fit between the current Gigabit Ethernet standard and the high end 10Gbps platform. The standard would cover ranges of 100 meters over Cat E twisted pair cabling, so that changes to cable infrastructure would not be required as they would for 10Gbps and above.
The main reason is the rapid increase in the speed of WiFi. Enterprise and hotspot WLANs are adopting the latest 802.11ac iteration, and its gigabit speeds are threatening to drown the access points’ wired Ethernet backhaul links.
The two companies are proposing the formation of a study group within the IEEE 802 effort, focused on a Next Generation Enterprise Access Base-T PHY. This will get its first hearing at the IEEE 802 plenary in San Antonio, Texas on November 3-6. The initiators of the would-be study group are Yong Kim, senior technical director at Broadcom, and David Law of Hewlett-Packard, chair of the 802.3 working group, and Cisco has also lent its support.
They say in their invitation: “This is a call for interest to initiate a Study Group to explore the need for one or more new Ethernet speed(s) between 1Gbps and 10Gbps over balanced twisted pair cabling. We believe there is a market need, driven by IEEE 802.11ac wireless access points, to support higher than 1Gbps Ethernet rates at a 100m reach. Higher performance end devices like desktop and laptop PCs, as well as other enterprise applications for Ethernet, will also benefit from the new data rates provided by this work.”
John D'Ambrosia, a Dell fellow and veteran of Ethernet standards efforts, told EETimes there was significant interest and the study group was likely to be approved. "I wouldn't be surprised to see a dual-rate effort come out of this," he commented.
There is also work going on far higher up the Ethernet performance scale, in the area which feeds into Carrier Ethernet and mobile backhaul platforms. A de facto standards alliance was formed in July to look at 25G and 50G Ethernet, but the IEEE quickly responded with its own study group, focused on the same data rates, a few days later. These different efforts highlight the diversity of applications for Ethernet these days, requiring a faster development cycle and a wider variety of speeds. "People have removed the barriers of traditional 10x Ethernet upgrades,” said d’Ambrosia.
Meanwhile, Ethernet PHY specialist Aquantia is getting in early, and in time-honoured fashion seeking to create a technology in advance of an IEEE standards effort, which could then form the basis for that standard. Its new AQrate range supports 2.5G and 5G rates over 100m of Cat E twisted pair cable. The 28nm parts are based on Aquantia's existing 10G Ethernet PHY, which is in production and work in conjunction with FPGAs and IP from Xilinx.