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Silicon’s Secrets: What Chips Tell Us About the Future of Mobile

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Phones and apps are the sexiest attendees at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) show in Barcelona, but for those wondering what the future holds, look no further than Freescale, ST-Ericsson , Marvell (s mrvl), Qualcomm (s qcom), Nvidia (s nvda) and Texas Instruments (s txn). Underlying the entire mobile ecosystem are semiconductor firms that supply the radios and brains inside the handset and those that make the chips to power the network. From their product launches, it’s clear to see in what direction the mobile world is heading: While faster broadband speeds and more devices are expected, the move toward a more distributed infrastructure and the emergence of true world phones might surprise.

Mobile Goes Global and Gets Faster
I wrote on Monday about the application processors on display at MWC and what they presage in device features, but I didn’t talk about the radios and what they’re telling us. ST-Ericsson, for example, launched its Thor modem, which will can use non-contiguous spectrum to deliver faster broadband speeds of up to 84 Mbps down on HSPA+ networks. Aside from T-Mobile customers who might be interested in faster speeds on their handsets (such chips wouldn’t be available for testing until the second quarter of this year and likely won’t hit end-user devices until late 2012 or early 2013), it’s also worth noting because it means operators could combine different blocks of spectrum to offer their services and boost capacity. Previously, contiguous spectrum was valued higher than non-contiguous frequencies because it’s easier for operators to use, but this could change the valuation math. With HSPA and LTE allowing more flexible use, the value associated with the airwaves might change, plus operators with disparate chunks of spectrum can now add capacity and provide faster service.

In addition, many radio vendors are offering support for more spectrum bands and network technologies on their chips. Marvell introduced its PXA978 system on a chip that offers support for all different 3G standards with Wi-Fi radios, an application processor and a 1080p graphics capability on a single system on a chip. On its Thor modem, ST-Ericsson combines support for up to eight LTE/HSPA/GSM bands. Cramming as many radio technologies on an integrated chip is becoming more common as more devices need mobile connections, and device makers don’t want to have to support different designs for different countries. Three years ago, it was prevalent for someone to buy a laptop embedded with a radio for one carrier; for example, you would buy a laptop from Dell (s dell) or Sony (s sne) that would only connect to Sprint’s (S S) network. As more products require connectivity, such restrictions on carriers and carrying so many items become unmanageable and absurd.

The other significant shift in these multi-band, multi-network radios is that they can be attached to an application processor. Qualcomm has done this for years, and now Marvell, ST-Ericsson, Nvidia and others are following suit to offer the radios and the brains of handset or a tablet on one system on a chip or small board. This enables smaller devices and can reduce complexity and perhaps costs. It’s also a win for the chipmaker that gets the design win as they sell more silicon overall. A notable exception to this integrated radio and chip strategy is Apple (s aapl), which has its own processor (even before it had its own chip, Apple eschewed the integrated approach).

Networks Get Smarter and Become Distributed
That’s the handset side of the equation, but new chips designed to go inside base stations and other aspects of an operator’s core network also show how a proliferation of devices and demand for data are changing the way networks are built. Freescale for example, introduced its QorIQ and Qonverge chips and software, which are designed to work together in large base stations and in small ones. Alcatel-Lucent is using it in its LightRadio (s alu) products I wrote about a few weeks ago. By creating a platform of chips aimed at differently sized base stations under one software umbrella, Freescale is betting on the emergence of distributed cellular networks composed of cell towers, macrocells and smaller picocells.

Chipmakers are preparing not only for distributed networks, but also for more complex processes taking place within them. As next-generation standards, such as LTE-Advanced, require multiple antennas to boost capacity and offer support for multiple carriers and spectrum banding the equations the processors must run increase. Texas Instruments has released a family of chips designed for base stations that allocate more processing power to the base station to help with larger routing tables and the intricacies of implementing MIMO (multiple in and multiple out), which can involve using up to eight antennas at the base station and eight on the device to create more virtual vectors for spectrum.

Many of these chips will be hidden inside base stations, a picocell hanging from a lampost or buried in more and more devices as the mobile revolution spreads beyond tablets and phones into cars and appliances, but even though they’re unseen, their influence is profound.

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