MaxLinear expands towards 5G, looks like the new Broadcom

Which firm has chips for all these? Broadband access, data center and wired infrastructure, wireless carrier access, backhaul and Cloud-RAN fronthaul, 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 gateways, WiFi extenders, MDU switches, 4.5G radio transceivers, 100Gig fiber access and microwave.

Most people would answer Broadcom, but in fact this company also has power management, digital to analog converters, RF mixed signal, full band capture, MoCA, and hybrid TV tuners. That makes the answer easier – MaxLinear, which at the recent IBC (International Broadcasting Conference) was doing its best to look like a powerful alternative to Broadcom.

“I put those slides together,” said Len Dauphinee, the MaxLinear CTO, a refugee from Broadcom. He was directly responsible for adding technologies like Full Band Capture chips to the armory of the company, before it was acquired by Avago (which then changed the entire group’s name to Broadcom). “I did it so people can see what MaxLinear has become.”

We remember MaxLinear as the tiny US chip firm, which 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. It made its fortune from mixed signal RF chips, but recent mergers have made it so much more.

By its own efforts, MaxLinear went on to annex the CAN TV tuner replacement market, 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 (Multimedia over Coax), but here it also inherited set-top designs in the form of the old Trident business, which had graphics chips, video cards and TV display processors. In 2009 Trident also bought the NXP TV and set top businesses.

This year, once again by its own efforts, MaxLinear entered the mobile backhaul space with a 20Gbps millimeter wave system-on-chip, and a full-duplex modem in readiness for 5G.

And then it went and bought the Marvell division that is the leading supplier across China of chips, a technology rapidly invading Europe,.

Its next move was to sell off its LCD displays business to raise money to buy Exar, one of the most profitable chipmakers in the world with a 75% gross margin. Exar takes it into ADAS, 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, 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 become a place where margins had to 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 said. He gives the example of how at MaxLinear was given an RF front end, so that it could coexist 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,” Dauphinee continued. “So all our engineers arrive at MaxLinear and re-invent themselves with exposure to other like-minded people with neighboring skill sets.”

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.” This gave MaxLinear table stakes in wireless base station transceivers, though this is a market which almost killed Broadcom and stretched the mighty Intel on multiple occasions. “We are focusing on the spectrum below 6 GHz first, because no-one is going to do much above the 6 GHz line for some years in 5G,” said 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.

At IBC, the firm released AirPHY, which enables data to be transferred wirelessly through typical building materials with an aggregate throughput of up to 2.5Gbps. This is a 5 GHz 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 coup 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 10Gbps in each direction. It is built like, 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 1Gbps telco signals indoors, and on the other, removing the biggest issue DOCSIS has, that of being married to FDD. We suspect its star is rising.