June 24, 2013
By Rick Merritt
SAN JOSE, Calif. – Altair Semiconductor aims to drive LTE this year down into the penny-pinching budget of Wi-Fi for mobile devices and the Internet of Things. Its effort involves next-generation chips and new module suppliers such as Taiwan’s Quanta to go up against archrival Qualcomm and others.
“We want to drive LTE to Wi-Fi levels–today to add Wi-Fi to a product costs about $10 but for LTE it’s about $150-200” to the consumer, said Eran Eshed, co-founder and vice president of marketing at Altair. “Once LTE gets down to a $20-40 increment over Wi-Fi, we’ll see an inflection point,” he said, echoing the old marketing mantra of former Intel chief Andy Grove.
Altair is one of a handful of former WiMax startups encouraged by the initiative Intel had—and subsequently dropped–on that wireless alternative several years ago. Like rival Sequans, Altair now pushes an LTE-only agenda, but due to its heritage it lacks 3G cellular technology.
Altair aims to make its lack of 3G an asset. Eshed claims its LTE-only chip is smaller and cheaper and modules using it are smaller with a lower bill of materials because they do not need to support 3G bands and features.
3G filters and other components cost $3-$6 at the board level. 3G patent licenses cost even more–$5-$10, he estimates.
Altair is working on a next-gen LTE-only chip that has a smaller die thanks to a process shrink. It will mark the start of a family of LTE chips the company plans, segmented for low-end IoT to high-end, tablet devices supporting LTE Release 9+ features such as carrier aggregation.
Taiwan’s Quanta has already certified with Verizon a low-cost LTE module using Altair’s current chip. “We have big design wins you will see in late 2013 with modules for tablets and ultrabooks at new low price points,” Eshed said.
Archrival Qualcomm is the 800-pound gorilla in the cellular module market. Sierra Wireless, Novotel and others use its chips in modules Ershed claims have high margins that Quanta and other Altair contract manufacturers will undercut.
In addition to Qualcomm, Altair faces an array of formidable competitors. Broadcom, Marvell, Mediatek, Texas Instruments and GTC of Korea all have eyes on this market and the emerging IoT space. Getting an edge with low-cost LTE-only modules will not be easy—but the heated competition may spark some interesting design wins in the next year.