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Intel's latest acquisition boosts base station play

Acquires former Picochip business from Mindspeed, strengthening skills in signal processing, small cells and TD-SCDMA


Published: 18 December, 2013


One of the most significant aspects of Intel's assault on the mobile sector is its infrastructure chip play. It has been steadily making acquisitions, and launching products, to insert its x86 architecture into every link in the network chain. Its latest purchase is of the wireless assets of Mindspeed, a unit largely based on the femtocell silicon pioneer, Picochip.

Mindspeed acquired Picochip for $51.8m in 2012 (Intel, an early investor in the UK firm through its venture capital arm, had been reported to have been interested in a bid in 2011). The rest of Mindspeed has now been acquired for $272m by MACom, presumably signalling the final end of a once-interesting development in small LTE base stations.

The former Picochip will play a far more strategic role at Intel than it did at Mindspeed, its engineers likely to contribute to the giant's ambitious bid to push x86 into almost every link in the network, from C-RAN servers to network processors to base stations.

Aided by network virtualization trends, which run key functions as applications on a server, Intel is promoting the idea of using a generic platform to run nearly all aspects of the network, in order to expand the ecosystem and reduce cost. This platform is, of course, x86-based though the Xeon processors are accompanied by high performance dedicated chipsets to carry out the more specialized tasks such as signal processing.

The ex-Picochip assets could feed into various aspects of this plan, notably the next promised step, to produce the long awaited base station platform, built around a Xeon accelerator optimized for signal processing. At the recent launch of Intel's latest network infrastructure chipset, Highland Forest, it was revealed that prototypes based on FPGA chips are being used in China Mobile's huge Cloud-RAN market trial.

Intel has talked before about producing a full base station offering, though to date it has mainly worked with partners to get x86 processors into cell site equipment, as seen in its alliances with NSN over the RACS/Liquid Apps offering, and Cisco/Ubiquisys for the Smart Cell.

Now it has certainly bought itself significant new expertise in this area. "The team and technology Intel is acquiring will make important contributions to how Intel Architecture (IA)-based solutions are transforming wireless access within mobile network infrastructure," wrote Rose Schooler, head of the infrastructure activities, in a blog post. "Our goal has always been to consolidate all four workloads to run on IA and we have already made significant steps towards enabling the last one - signal processing on Intel-based servers - through collaboration with China Mobile and SKT on designing Cloud RAN technologies."

Schooler also said, in an interview with EETimes, that the deal would help Intel support baseband processing, including turbo N Code and Z Code functions. "It has been a decade-long journey [to support all comms workloads] and this acquisition is one of the final building blocks," she said. "One of the key gaps we wanted to close was in the area of wireless access, and that's what this acquisition allows us to do."

Another significant aspect of the deal is that Mindspeed/Picochip was the only firm to produce small cell chips supporting China's 3G standard, TD-SCDMA, which gives Intel another route into the world's highest growth wireless market, where it is already forging close ties via its C-RAN trials.

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