And the winner of the iPad LTE chipset lottery appears to be… Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM).
Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) announced its latest version of the iPad last week, with new features like a high-resolution “retina display” screen, a high-definition video camera and, for some tablets, the ability to connect to an LTE (or long-term evolution) wireless data network.
For people who like to use iPads outside of Wi-Fi networks, LTE is potentially a big deal. It means tapping into fourth-generation data networks that are up to five times faster than existing 3G networks. That means faster-loading high-definition video, more-powerful graphics and, potentially, more-immersive video games.
Not all iPads will use LTE chips. Those that do start at $629 versus $499 for a Wi-Fi only iPad, plus data plans from AT&T (NYSE:T) and Verizon (NYSE:VZ) that can quickly reach $50 a month. But supplying LTE chips for the iPad has been a closely watched contest in the semiconductor industry, because Apple will sell tens of millions of tablets this year.
Opening the Door to Wider LTE Adoption
Apple hasn’t said who supplied parts for its new iPad, but the early word from those who like to closely inspect Apple gadgets suggests Qualcomm’s MDM9600 baseband chip is in the device. Some analysts had been expecting Apple to use a different chip, the MDM9615, which is more power-efficient and therefore less of a drain on the battery. What’s more, the 9615 chip is reportedly the first to offer both LTE and voice services on a single chip.
But that more efficient chip may be reserved for the next-generation iPhone. Thanks in part to the launch of an LTE-capable iPad, smartphone manufacturers in Asia expect between 40 million and 50 million LTE phones will ship this year, up from an earlier estimate of 25 million to 30 million.
If so, Qualcomm’s LTE chips would power Apple’s first smartphone that can tap into AT&T’s and Verizon’s new 4G LTE networks. Apple sold 37 million iPhone 4S units in its most recent quarter. Imagine how many new iPhones it will sell when they can tap into data networks that are several times faster than what the iPhone 4S can use.
Questions About a Manufacturing Partner
Qualcomm also makes the Snapdragon chip, which HTC is planning on using in its One X and One S phones, running Google‘s (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android operating software. Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) is planning on using the Snapdragon S4 in tablets and PCs powered by its Windows 8 operating software. But a recent move by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (NYSE:TSM) to shut down its 28-nanometer production facilities, which were used to make Snapdragon S4 chips, could delay their arrival.
Other companies such as Taiwan-based MediaTek and Sweden-based L.M. Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) saw their stock tumble in January; Ericsson noted that the shift to LTE networks was hurting its margins. Other names developing LTE chips include Cavium (NYSE:CAVM), which Jefferies & Co. recently upgraded to buy in part because of its exposure to the LTE market, and Tokyo-based Renesas, which has partnered with U.S. chipmaker Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA).
But thanks in good part to its use in devices made by Apple, Microsoft, and manufacturers of Android-based like HTC, Qualcomm seems to be the LTE chipmaker with the best prospects this year. The only snag is the shutdown at TSMC, with which Qualcomm has developed its 28-nanometer technology. Depending on how serious and how long the closure is, it could put a dent in an otherwise promising year for Qualcomm’s LTE chips.