ARM is already the brains of your smartphone. Now it wants to run the network too

LSI Axxia ARM mobile base station chip

ARM cores pretty much have the mobile applications processor market locked up, though Intel is trying to peck away at the dominance. But ARM isn’t content with its single mobile kingdom. It’s encroaching on the neighboring realm of mobile infrastructure as well, aiming to make its cores the workhorse processors in cellular base stations.

This week LSI announced its first ARM-based chip for the mobile base station. You thought Nvidia and Qualcomm’s quad-core smartphone processors were impressive, well LSI is embedding 16 ARM Cortex A15 cores, along with LSI’s networking accelerators and ARM’s low-latency CoreLink interconnect technology, onto a single 28-nanometer chip.

The chip family is designed for base stations of all sizes, scaling from the macrocell down to the picocell, making similar to the flexible and modular platforms offered by competitors Texas Instruments (TXN) and Freescale. Both Freescale and TI have begun incorporating ARM cores into their base station chips, though neither one is a complete ARM convert. Freescale leans heavily on the PowerPC architecture, while TI is pairing ARM cores with its bread-and-butter digital signal processors (DSPs). But ARM is definitely taking bigger and bigger strides into the mobile network with its increasingly powerful but energy-efficient silicon designs.

One company that’s hoping to join ARM within the guts of the mobile network is Intel, which is no stranger to skirmishes with the U.K. silicon giant in the infrastructure market. Intel is trying to establish a foothold for itself in the emerging technology cloud-RAN (RAN stands for radio access network). Cloud-RAN would separate the base station from the tower and move baseband processing into the cloud.

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