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High margins, fast growth – Is MaxLinear the new Broadcom?

We interviewed a couple of chip companies at IBC and came across one that at first sight we entire failed to recognize. It had a 10 slide presentation running in front of its meeting room and as it cycled through we became more and more perplexed. Perhaps you can work out who it is?

Which chip firm has all these; broadband access, data center and wired infrastructure, wireless carrier access, backhaul and cloud RAN front haul, force touch interface chips, encryption and compression, video processing, automotive advanced driver assistance (ADAS) and infotainment, modems, MAC and remote PHY, IP set tops, home gateway, WiFi extenders, MDU switches, 4.5G radio transceivers, 100 gig fiber access and microwave.

We spent more time in front of that slide than in the meeting room., and it was only when we reached familiar territory of power management, digital to analog converters, RF mixed signal, full band capture, MoCA, G.hn and hybrid TV tuners that we began to recognize the company we had come to see – MaxLinear.

“I put those slides together,” said Len Dauphinee, the MaxLinear CTO, a refugee of Broadcom, which was directly responsible for adding things like Full, Band Capture chips to the armory of Broadcom. “I did it so people can see what MaxLinear has become.” We remember MaxLinear as the tiny US chip firm, who against all the odds smashed its way into the confined Japanese market with a CMOS radio chip that enabled 1 seg ISDB-T back in 2005, and ended up with a 70% market share. We always front end anything we say about MaxLinear with Mixed Signal RF chip designer, but recent mergers have made it so much more.

By its own efforts, MaxLinear went on to annex the CAN Tuner replacement market for TVs, and then the DOCSIS tuner market where it has seen great growth in cable. Always it has gone head to head with Broadcom.

Back in 2015 it was the surprise buyer of Entropic, which took it into MoCA, but also here it inherited set top designs in the form of the old Trident business, which itself had graphics chips and video cards designs and TV display processors. But in 2009 Trident also bought the NXP (ex-Philips) TV and set top businesses. So those chip designs may be sleeping, but they are not dead and they live in MaxLinear.

This year, once again by its own efforts it has gatecrashed Mobile World Congress in mobile backhaul with a 20 Gbps Millimeter Wave SoC, full duplex modem in readiness for 5G.

And then immediately it went and bought the Marvel division that is now a fairly dominant supplier of G.hn chips throughout China, a technology rapidly invading Europe, as noted last week that Liberty Global now ships G.hn devices for powerline communication across Europe.

The purchase of Exar then saw it sell off its displays LCD displays business to raise money to get Exar, one of the most profitable chip makers in the world with a 75% gross margin. Exar takes it into ADAS and infotainment and power management, and it is the last big bet of a management with a clear philosophy that makes it different from other chips firms.

Dauphinee puts it down to the leadership of Kishore Seendripu, the CEO and founder of MaxLinear, who left Broadcom in 2003 to start the company, and is one of the main reasons Dauphinee jumped ship in 2012. “The current CEO of, Hock Tan, has made Broadcom a very different place to when I worked there. We used to do interesting stuff, which was right out there,” said Dauphinee. He remembers the days of Scott McGregor’s Broadcom affectionately, but said that slowly it has become a place where margins dictate areas of interest.

“At MaxLinear we don’t buy a business to isolate it and run it separately, we buy a business to integrate the engineering team, and find ways to blend the technologies. At Broadcom Hock Tan abolished central engineering.” He gives the example of how G.hn at MaxLinear was given an RF front end, so that it could co-exist with DOCSIS on coax. Most people are unaware of that, and think it runs purely in 200 MHz of baseband, but this is an adaptation that the Chinese and Korean markets found useful, so MaxLinear did it.

“It’s us that pushed MoCA towards version 2.5 and then did a version for access networks. The old MoCA has a 25 MHz gap in it, which we removed. We don’t join alliances so they can dictate to us. The MoCA Alliance is very helpful in getting a technology like MoCA off the ground, but standards also dilute performance and you cannot let that dictate the entire chip design.”

“So all our engineers arrive at MaxLinear and re-invent themselves with exposure to other like-minded people with neighboring skillsets.”
We then ask about a few of the items on the list – 5G is in there. “

“In 2016 we bought the wireless access business of Microsemi, which was previously part of PMC-Sierra. This included wideband RF transceivers for 3G, 4G, and future 5G cellular base stations and remote radio head units.” It is one acquisition at Faultline Online Reporter which we ignored, it being outside of our main area of expertise.

It gave it table stakes in what was a $500 million market for wireless base station transceivers, but come 5G that will be a business around 5 times that, which makes it a shrewd move – albeit one that almost killed Broadcom and stretched the mighty Intel on multiple occasions. “We are focusing on the spectrum below 6GHz first, because no-one is going to do much above the 6 GHz line for some years in 5G,” says Dauphinee. But putting all those RF engineers into a shared working environment is perhaps one of the only ways of getting them to make a difference come 5G order time and they have their work continuing in backhaul to familiarize themselves with millimeter wave for now, ready for full 5G down the track.

What we are really seeing here is something of a Broadcom diaspora. It began with the MaxLinear founder, it has extended to Dauphinee, and under Hock Tan, as Broadcom focuses on margins, it is cutting entire campuses to cut costs, and in the process losing some of the heads of engineering that brought us set tops and home gateway chips. They will all turn up somewhere, and many were at IBC either talking up rival businesses, or fronting start-ups.

MaxLinear put out one release for the IBC show, about supplying the low noise block chips for the DTH channel stacking market, with an order from Microelectronics Technology for Sky’s DTH services. The low noise block chip downconverts a satellite RF feed from 10.7GHz-12.75GHz into two wideband outputs, each supporting the 290MHz to 2350MHz extended L-Band range. In effect it’s a full band capture chip that feeds Sky TV’s Sky Q box.

You can see its philosophy in that product alone. Another release at the show was something innovative in AirPHY which enables data to be transferred wirelessly through typical building materials with an aggregate throughput of up to 2.5 Gbps. This is a 5GHz technology that can get a fixed wireless broadband signal into a home from outside without drilling holes in the wall. It is clearly aimed at the 28 GHz fixed broadband services expected in the US next year and it might have been directly commissioned by Verizon or AT&T or fast and painless broadband through a wall.

AirPHY was demoed at the show delivering 1Gbps and up to 25 watts of power across a 25mm low-emissivity (low-e) glass window, more than enough to power the AirPHY and fiber-optic modems on the other side.

But the “coupe de grace” of its announcements at IBC was being the first to get a chip out which shows Full Duplex DOCSIS (FDX), the technology designed to take DOCSIS 3.1 up to 10 Gbps in each direction. It is built like G.fast, using echo cancellation and this uses a proprietary MaxLinear solution. Again another example of its philosophy – not sticking purely to the standards but going a step beyond.

It also shows what an arms dealer it is. On the one hand designing chips which will bring 1 Gbps telco signals indoors, and on the other, removing the biggest issue DOCSIS has, that of being married to Frequency Division Duplexing. We suspect its star is rising.

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