On September 16th, 2016, MediaTek announced their first LTE smartphone win for the Sprint network in the US with the LG X Power model LS755. This design win on a major US carrier is significant in that it represents MediaTek’s first LTE modem win in a market dominated by industry leader Qualcomm. While competitive LTE thin modem designs have entered the US market previously with Samsung’s Shannon for the Galaxy S6 and Intel’s XMM7360 for iPhone 7, the MediaTek Helio P10 (MTK6755m) represents the first integrated apps processor and LTE modem solution which also supports CDMA voice in one System-on-Chip (SoC) – a solution which previously only Qualcomm could provide. Given the stringent LTE network requirements and testing regimes of major US carriers, only a handful of competitive LTE solutions to date are offered outside of Qualcomm. Therefore, with this win, MediaTek marks a turning point for merchant LTE SoC supplier market in the US wireless market as more competitive players and chipset providers enter the global marketplace for LTE carriers and smartphone OEMs.
With the introduction of LTE some 6 years ago, smartphone OEMs have attempted to keep up with the ever growing complexity of the 4th generation wireless standard, all the while supporting legacy 2G/3G networks. Early designs relied on home grown LTE modem solutions that were usually discrete chipsets and only addressed the new air interface. This dedicated chipset approach was proven to be too expensive and technologically unsustainable as cost pressures intensified with the maturation of LTE technology and computational requirements of smartphones. Hence, by 2011-2012, the bulk of the industry abandoned discrete chipset designs and adopted Qualcomm’s turnkey solution of advanced SoC featuring LTE connectivity support. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon platform provided a highly integrated SoC solution and, more importantly, solved the issues of interoperability between LTE as well as all flavors of global 3G. Qualcomm continues to maintain at least one technological generation lead over the rest of the market including the vertically integrated solutions offered by Samsung and Huawei and other merchant LTE chipset providers such as MediaTek and Intel.
MediaTek, meanwhile has pursued a late strategic entry into the LTE marketplace through partnerships with Chinese smartphone OEM brands such as ZTE, TCL-Alcatel, Huawei, Lenovo, Meizu, Gionee and others within the domestic Chinese market. The Taiwanese chipset firm was able to capitalize on the Chinese 4G LTE deployments in 2014 and 2015, winning a significant share of smartphone design wins. While specialized in the TDD flavor of LTE, the Chinese 4G smartphone design created a unique opportunity for competitive merchant chipset vendors such as MediaTek who did not have the full complement of legacy 3G support. Further, MediaTek has also licensed the CDMA/EvDO designs from Via Telecom which enable the company to compete more effectively against Qualcomm for more complete 3G designs in the Chinese market including those of China Telecom (CDMA based voice network).
MediaTek’s experience in designing TD-LTE phones for the Chinese market, naturally led to their partnership with LG in developing an LTE smartphone for Sprint who deploys a significant chunk of TD-LTE asset in Band 41. Furthermore, MediaTek’s ability to support CDMA/EvDO networks in their World Mode MTK6755m design dovetailed nicely into Sprint’s legacy 3G network requirements making MediaTek a natural choice as their first competitive non-Qualcomm LTE design.
The LG X Power is an affordable smartphone design that emphasizes long battery life with its 4100mAh battery capacity. The MediaTek powered model is the LS755 which features a CAT-6 2x20MHz carrier aggregation LTE design to take advantage of the intra-band carrier aggregation of Sprint’s Band 41 spectrum assets. The MediaTek Helio P10 SoC also features an Octa-core applications processor which is significantly different than the GSM version of the LG X Power (model K450) that features a quad core Qualcomm Snapdragon 210 CAT-4 LTE solution. MediaTek is offering greater computing performance and LTE capability with the MTK6755m for a lower cost and as an alternative to the standard Qualcomm LTE design giving smartphone OEMs opportunities to leverage design differentiation and meet carrier needs.
As LTE continues to mature, the technology will evolve to take advantage of greater performance gains in LTE Advance through carrier aggregation and later with higher order modulation and 4x4 MIMO. This growth in capability will open up new competitive opportunities for merchant LTE chipset providers such as MediaTek. As with any market that matures and diversifies, competition is ultimately beneficial to the marketplace by expanding design diversity and driving down cost. Therefore, MediaTek’s first win in the US carrier market is a step toward a more competitive and diverse supply chain and bodes well for the overall health of the industry.