Mindspeed acquisition fuels Intel's hopes for bigger network role

The company's wireless access technology will it play across mobile networks, Intel said

Intel's acquisition of mobile network assets from silicon vendor Mindspeed Technologies will give the chip giant what it needs to extend the Intel architecture throughout mobile operator networks, helping the carriers upgrade hardware and roll out new services more quickly, according to Intel.

Intel announced on Monday that it would acquire the wireless access business of Mindspeed, known for chips that power small cells. It didn't disclose the price but said the deal is likely to close in the first quarter of next year. The rest of Mindspeed is being acquired by network chip maker M/A-COM Technology Solutions Holdings for US$272 million.

As with other areas of IT infrastructure, Intel has begun making inroads into service-provider networks. Standard Intel-architecture chips already power application processing within those networks, as well as control functions and processing of IP (Internet Protocol) packets, said Steve Price, general manager of Intel's communications infrastructure division. Intel's most recent advances have been into packet processing, where a single Intel core could only move 250,000 packets per second about four years ago and now can handle 20 million packets per second, according to Price.

With the Mindspeed assets, Intel will gain technology for the very edge of mobile systems, the radio-access networks (RANs) where signals from client devices hits cellular base stations and is converted into packets, Price said. This so-called baseband processing today typically is done by DSPs (digital signal processors). Intel envisions a "cloud RAN" architecture where RAN functions are carried out on pooled computing resources. Mindspeed's technology will help Intel get into this area with full-size macro cells as well as with small cells, he said.

Mobile networks have mostly been the realm of specialized hardware platforms, which are updated less often than Intel's and are more time-consuming to program for, Price said. With Intel chips for all parts of a carrier's network, equipment vendors will be able to refresh their systems with higher performance each year and offer a consistent architecture across the network, according to Intel. The company is even working on optimizations between its chips for mobile devices and for networks, Price said.

With networks built with Intel chips from end to end, it will be easier to realize intelligent, software-driven networks that can make more efficient use of strained resources, Price said. As mobile demands grow, this will be essential.

"If the operator doesn't change the way they're building networks, then our user experience is going to be compromised," Price said.

For example, the smarter networks could let carriers could tune a customer's service at any given time based on where they are, what app they are running, where the current network bottlenecks are, and other factors. The networks will also be able to use subscriber priority and app security requirements into consideration, he said.

Intel's prospects as an end-to-end network chip supplier aren't clear, analysts said. The company has a spotty track record for penetrating the cellular market, including its attempts with WiMax and with smartphone chips, Ovum analyst Daryl Schoolar said. And in this case, it's buying into a cloudy business.

"The small cell itself remains just swamped in hype and unrealized expectations," Schoolar said.

However, the acquisition should be good news for the small-cell industry, said analyst Ed Gubbins of Current Analysis. The business that Intel is buying has suffered from the slow ramp-up in small cells, he said.

"The Intel deal replaces a weak player with a very strong, stable one that has a much better chance of being able to meet the anticipated demand for scaling up small cells in the relatively near future," probably around 2015, Gubbins said in an email interview.

The Mindspeed acquisition is particularly important because the five biggest RAN vendors are customers, and the company's future was uncertain after the M/A-COM buyout was announced.

"Now they at least have some more visibility into the future, so they don't have to pause in their plans, waiting to find out about Mindspeed's fate," Gubbins said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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