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5 questions OEMs should ask a chip maker

Tue, 04/01/2014 - 10:15am
Eran Eshed, Co-Founder and VP Marketing and Business Development at Altair Semiconductor

One of the components of your future device is a cellular chip. There are many chip providers from which to choose, all eager to help bring your product to market.

The decision to partner with a chipset vendor is not an easy one, and requires a significant amount of research, time and resources. With so much riding on making the right decision, it is crucial to understand your potential vendor's full capabilities.

Asking vendors the following five questions will help you select a long-term partner that can help you achieve your business goals.

1. What markets will your chipset solution enable me to address?

Is your device slated for launch in the U.S., Europe, or Asia?

The global LTE market is extremely fragmented, with more than 40 frequency bands as well as variances for TDD (Time Division Duplex) and FDD (Frequency Division Duplex) modulations. In addition to regional requirements, mobile network operators also have their own unique combination of bands.

Depending on where you want to launch your product, you’ll first need to determine which bands will need to be supported.

An ideal chip partner is one that can provide you with the flexibility to combine any band and frequency needed. This will allow you to address any market world-wide, without limitation.

With the right long-term partner, you can invest in one platform and then easily adapt it to various bands using the same software, chipset and tools. This is much more efficient than building new solutions from scratch each time and only requires a marginal investment for each additional combination added.  

2. What is the maturity level of the solution and the shipment track record?

When it comes to maturity, it is crucial to understand where the chip has been tested. Make sure to find out with whom has the chipset vendor conducted interoperability testing (IoT) and to what extent. Also, explore what kinds of products and form factors have already been shipped based on this technology.

Most importantly, find out which carriers have already certified the chip on their networks (see question 4 for more on the implications). These important guidelines will help you distinguish between chips that look good on paper and those that have been thoroughly tested and are market-ready.

Shipment track records can also offer insight into market adoption, but don’t just take them at face value. Make sure you understand how the numbers compare to different subsets of the total industry.

For example, when it comes to single-mode LTE (4G only, without 3G fallback), market shipments to date are still relatively low compared to multi-mode 3G+LTE. Single-mode LTE has recently begun to come to market in meaningful volumes and is expected to rise exponentially over the coming years, as LTE network coverage becomes ubiquitous. Although a single-mode LTE developer will likely initially have fewer shipments than a traditional multi-mode developer, it offers the benefits of lower cost, lower power and better solution flexibility that must be factored into the final decision.

3. What performance metrics does it deliver? At what power consumption?

What capabilities do you want to offer your end users?

Industry standards define LTE “Category 3” as 100 MBPs downlink, and “Category 4” as 150 MBPs downlink. Some forward-looking developers have already started sampling “Category 6” that can reach 300 MBPs.

However, keep in mind that in addition to throughput and bitrate, LTE performance also depends on how well the device can perform under real channel conditions, including the challenges of low signal areas, indoor performance or interference.

At the same time, this performance needs to be balanced with low power consumption. LTE devices can drain the battery very quickly. Therefore, it is crucial to find a solution that provides the winning combination of performance and low power consumption.

4. How complex/expensive will it be to take a product based on your technology to market?

Unlike Wi-Fi or Bluetooth technology, LTE requires rigorous and expensive carrier certifications pre-deployment. The most basic LTE certification is 3GPP compliance, measured by running Global Certification Forum’s (GCF) conformance test suites. On top of this, each carrier around the world has its own vigorous certification process, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take up to several months to complete.

Selecting a vendor that is already certified on a major network is a strong indication that the chip will pass other carrier certifications fairly easily, and quickly.

Pre-certified chips can definitely contribute to quicker time to market. Going with a vendor that hasn’t already received certification is much more risky.

5. How cost competitive is it and what is your roadmap to maintaining feature/cost competitiveness?

Price is always a major factor for any purchasing decision. Why bother with a low cost solution that doesn’t perform well, or pay extra for features that you do not need?

Single-mode LTE is a great example of this. By removing unnecessary 3G silicon gates, Bill of Materials (BOM) components, and 3G royalty fees, single-mode chipsets are substantially more cost-effective and enable disruptively priced tablets, netbooks and other connected consumer devices.

As you evaluate vendors, remember that you are aiming to build a two-way, long-term partnership. Be direct with the vendor and ask about product development and planned price points for the near future.

As the global LTE market continues to grow, the need for LTE-capable devices will only continue to increase. OEMs and ODMs that invest in the right partnerships today will benefit from quick time-to-market, remain a step of the competition, and see their products adopted in strategic markets around the globe.  However, all of this begins by asking the right questions.

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