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Qualcomm, Intel escalate fight over iPhone modem

Taiwan's MediaTek undaunted by rising competition

Qualcomm is strong in mobile modem technology. (Photo by Cheng Ting-Fang)

BARCELONA, Spain -- The rivalry between U.S. chipmakers Qualcomm Technologies and Intel is growing as Apple seeks to incorporate more advanced technologies into its iPhone smartphones.

Intel, the world's largest semiconductor manufacturer, is battling for more orders for iPhones. Qualcomm has long led in mobile modem technology for high-end phones providing better voice connectivity and faster data transmission. And Qualcomm is always good at winning, said Serge Willenegger, senior vice president of product management, at the Mobile World Congress here.

Shortly before the event, Intel had announced the XMM 7560, a leading-edge offering to compete directly against Qualcomm's most advanced modem, the Snapdragon X16. Both 4G LTE modems are said to support world-leading download speeds of 1 gigabit per second. Intel said sampling of the chip will begin in the first half and production will follow afterwards without providing the exact schedule.

Serge Willenegger, senior vice president of product management at Qualcomm. (Photo by Cheng Ting-Fang)

Willenegger told reporters that he does not think the XMM 7560 can be ready until 2018. "I think it is easy [for Intel] to say things, but we need to measure how the execution goes," he said. Intel's move into advanced modems is widely reported to have some impact on Qualcomm's future business, especially when Apple is suing the world's largest mobile chip supplier for $1 billion over patent royalties.

Apple uses both Qualcomm and Intel modems in the iPhone 7. The modems are produced by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the world's largest contract chipmaker.

Intel has trailed Qualcomm in the smartphone age, but its latest modem marks its great efforts to make significant strides in communications technology, said Asha Keddy, a vice president of Intel's communications and devices group, to reporters here Sunday.

The company did not make the best start in modem technology several years ago, "and the unveiling of the new product is a way to show that we have caught up completely and we want to lead in 5G," Keddy said.

The industry as a whole is betting big on next-generation communications technology. In the 5G era seen arriving in a few years, people are expected to download and upload data even faster, play games and watch high-quality streaming video with zero latency. Autonomous cars could become a reality.

Keddy declined to comment on whether her company's share in supplying Apple would grow this year but said she certainly "hopes" that Intel's modem business can grow every year and land more orders from clients.

Taiwan's MediaTek, the largest mobile chip supplier to China and another Qualcomm competitor, is unfazed by Intel's entry.

"For mobile, we think Intel is only targeting to supply to Apple but not that eager to grab orders from other smartphone makers," said Jeffrey Ju, co-chief operating officer at MediaTek, on Monday. "In this case, the impact for Intel to enter the fray will [be] mostly on the Qualcomm side."

MediaTek does not supply Apple but does supply Samsung Electronics and most of the Chinese brands, such as Oppo, Vivo, Huawei, Xiaomi, Meizu and Gionee.

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