Intel is back in the 4G game, shipping its first smartphone LTE chip

Intel(s intc) on Wednesday announced the commercial availability of its long-awaited LTE modem targeted at smartphones and tablets – the first step in making it a credible challenger to dominant 4G chipmaker Qualcomm(s qcom).

This isn’t Intel’s first LTE silicon. It launched an LTE modem last year, but it was a bit of a one-trick pony, supporting 4G networking but none of the 3G and 2G technologies mobile devices need to fall back on when LTE is unavailable. The new XMM 7160 fills that gap, linking to not only 15 global LTE bands but also HSPA and GSM networks. It even supports new voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) services. The radio chip is already supplying the wireless connectivity inside of the European and Asian editions of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 3 (which also happens to sport an Intel Atom processor), and starting today the modem will begin shipping worldwide to device makers.


This also isn’t Intel’s first trip to mobile broadband rodeo. In the last decade it tried to spearhead WiMAX as the successor to 3G, but the initially promising technology failed to gain traction among global carriers. That sent Intel back to the drawing board. It bought Infineon back in 2010, making it an instant force in the 2G and 3G radio market, but it was still far behind Qualcomm when it came to LTE. Qualcomm modems powered the first LTE smartphones back in 2011, and it’s been on a roll ever since.

“Late”, however, is a relative term, according to Aicha Evans, Intel VP of wireless. Qualcomm may have established early dominance, but Intel has basically built an LTE business from scratch since it acquired Infineon, Evans said. “We did in three and a half years what some couldn’t do in seven years,” Evans said.

Intel hasn’t just built a one-off chip, Evans said. It’s developed a product pipeline, which will produce multiple new modems over the next year, she said. In the first half of 2014, Intel plans to ship a more advanced modem, supporting new LTE-Advanced techniques like carrier aggregation and the TD-LTE networks used by Sprint(s s), China Mobile(s chl) and many other global carriers. Also in the pipeline for 2014 is a multimode LTE module optimized for tablets and ultrabooks.

Aicha Evans

Aicha Evans

Still, Intel hasn’t fully caught up to Qualcomm. The San Diego chipmaker still the only LTE vendor with a fully integrated system-on-chip combining a baseband modem with applications and graphics processors. That kind of one-stop-shop definitely gives Qualcomm an advantage when it comes to mid-range smartphones, Evans said, but Evans pointed out many high-end devices are still designed with discreet modems and processors.

The most important thing for Intel, Evans said, is to first establish credibility in the market with high-end devices like the Galaxy Tab, which will then lead to deals for lower-end devices once its integrated silicon is ready. When will that be? Evans would reveal any specific timeline, but she said Intel would have more to say about an integrated Atom-LTE chip in the coming quarters.

Right now the LTE market is still relatively small compared to the 3G market – it just seems big here in the U.S. because of its fast pace of LTE adoption – so Intel still has a huge opportunity to capture market share. But it’s not the only one chasing Qualcomm’s dust. Broadcom(s brcm), MediaTek, Marvell(s mrvl) and Nvidia(s nvda) all have multimode LTE in their pipelines, and Nvidia has promised to deliver its own Qualcomm killer – a Tegra 4 processor combined with an LTE modem – in the first quarter.