Puma 6 blamed in DOCSIS modem row, may lose Intel the market

It’s not very often that a single flaw in an SoC leads to a change of hands of 50% of the largest broadband market in the world, but that could be the outcome of a legal action filed this week against Arris, over its core Intel supplied chip.

Intel acquired the dominant DOCSIS SoC Puma 6 chipset from Texas Instruments back in 2010, and is perhaps surprised to see it in the majority of SoC designs in the US market. The chip contains an Atom x86 processor, aimed at gigabit broadband boxes and claims to be able to handle speeds of up to 1.6Gbps. There is a successor chip, the Puma 7, introduced in late 2015, and ready for Home Gateways now – but there is every clue in this latest debacle that the entire market may flip to Broadcom or other chipsets.

The Puma 7 is built in 14nm technology and supports DOCSIS 3.1 and uses a dual-core Intel Atom processor which supports future virtualization ideas to help operators introduce NFV and SDN at the residential gateway. But already there are early defections – notably by Arris – to devices which don’t use the Intel range. Right now this is a market where well over $1 billion a year is spent on DOCSIS modems in the US, and the global market could be 3 or 4 times that – so we may look for a large hole in Intel revenues as a result of what was previously just a “buggy” chip. Arris claimed to have shipped 135 million of these devices, in which case, if it has switched chip on that device, that decision alone will create a noticeable revenue gap for Intel.

Discussion boards have been buzzing for a few months about the latency and jitter on an Arris modem, the SURFboard SB6190. The problem seems to have been firmly placed at the door of the Intel Puma 6 chip, which is used on many other market place designs and is shipped by operators such as Comcast, which uses it in its incredibly successful Xfinity X1 spec, and Virgin in the UK, as well as equipment from vendors Cisco, Linksys, Hitron and Compal. The problem is most notable when consumers are playing video games which require rapid responses, and this design won’t provide them.

A firmware update was supposed to have calmed the market down, and put the problem behind them at the turn of the year, but the suit has set it boiling once again, and anyway the problem doesn’t seem to be fixable with firmware changes only.

The new legal action comes from a private individual in California, but is a class action suit for all of the other users of this device. Regardless of whether Arris is forced by a court to take back the devices and replace them, the hit is likely to be transferred back to Intel to make Arris good. But more importantly Arris has now switched the supply for its next generation products to the BCM3390 SoC, which means Arris is likely to have cut off the Intel Puma 7 from future designs.

This could be the start of more legal actions, and other equipment manufacturers may also jump in, and the result could be a mass migration away from the Puma architecture in the coming months. This may have a negative impact on chip shipments for CMOS RF chip vendor MaxLinear, which partners Intel on this design, with a chip which tunes all 32 channels for DOCSIS on one piece of silicon.

Intel’s Puma 7 architecture is supposed to operate at around 4.5Gbps and the chip comes with RDK support.

This could see Intel lose out on what is expected to be a dynamic DOCSIS market place over the coming years, with a full Duplex version of DCOSIS expected around 2018, then the process of virtualization in DOCSIS devices expected by 2020, with extended spectrum versions in the 2021 time frame, all which would have given multi $billion opportunities to DOCSIS chip vendors.