China throws money at domestic chip firm as TSMC stops taking orders from Huawei

The US move to impose a ban on any US tech being used in the production of Huawei chips has sent shockwaves through the semiconductor industry.

A couple of reports illustrate this well. Bloomberg notes that the Chinese state is pumping $2.25 billion into Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation. This will apparently give the Chinese state even more control over the company than it had anyway and is clearly a move designed to accelerate the country’s move towards silicon self-sufficiency, despite the company name.

Meanwhile the Nikkei Asian Review reports that TSMC has stopped taking new orders from Huawei as a direct result of the US ban. This is pretty massive for TSMC as Huawei is one of its biggest customers, so you have to wonder if the decision was influenced by incentives as well as threats from the US.

Huawei, of course, is not impressed with the latest US move against it. Here’s the statement made earlier today at its virtual analyst event in full.

Huawei categorically opposes the amendments made by the US Department of Commerce to its foreign direct product rule that target Huawei specifically.

The US government added Huawei to the Entity List on May 16, 2019 without justification. Since that time, and despite the fact that a number of key industrial and technological elements were made unavailable to us, we have remained committed to complying with all US government rules and regulations. At the same time, we have fulfilled our contractual obligations to customers and suppliers, and have survived and forged ahead against all odds.

Nevertheless, in its relentless pursuit to tighten its stranglehold on our company, the US government has decided to proceed and completely ignore the concerns of many companies and industry associations.

This decision was arbitrary and pernicious, and threatens to undermine the entire industry worldwide. This new rule will impact the expansion, maintenance, and continuous operations of networks worth hundreds of billions of dollars that we have rolled out in more than 170 countries. 

It will also impact communications services for the more than 3 billion people who use Huawei products and services worldwide. To attack a leading company from another country, the US government has intentionally turned its back on the interests of Huawei’s customers and consumers. This goes against the US government’s claim that it is motivated by network security.

This decision by the US government does not just affect Huawei. It will have a serious impact on a wide number of global industries. In the long run, this will damage the trust and collaboration within the global semiconductor industry which many industries depend on, increasing conflict and loss within these industries.

The US is leveraging its own technological strengths to crush companies outside its own borders. This will only serve to undermine the trust international companies place in US technology and supply chains. Ultimately, this will harm US interests.

Huawei is undertaking a comprehensive examination of this new rule. We expect that our business will inevitably be affected. We will try all we can to seek a solution. We hope that our customers and suppliers will continue to stand with us and minimize the impact of this discriminatory rule.

According to the Global Times, Huawei had a cunning plan to order loads of chips from TSMC during the grace period included in the US measures, but the Nikkei story would appear to scupper that. To add insult to injury, Nokia has just announced a 5G network deal win with Taiwan Star Telecom. It increasingly looks like Taiwan is doing everything it can to distance itself from the Chinese state, something the latter is very unlikely to take lying down.

TSMC to build new fab in the US – your move China

The mobile industry’s default semiconductor manufacturer is building its next fab in the US, a move that could have major geopolitical implications.

Rumours of the US incentivising big chip-makers to expand their presence on US soil circulated at the start of this week and now we know their provenance. Intel is a US company anyway, so the big prise was always going to be TSMC, which has most of its operations in Taiwan. It looks like bribes offers of support from the US government were too good to refuse.

“TSMC today announced its intention to build and operate an advanced semiconductor fab in the United States with the mutual understanding and commitment to support from the U.S. federal government and the State of Arizona,” opened the TSMA announcement.

“This facility, which will be built in Arizona, will utilize TSMC’s 5-nanometer technology for semiconductor wafer fabrication, have a 20,000 semiconductor wafer per month capacity, create over 1,600 high-tech professional jobs directly, and thousands of indirect jobs in the semiconductor ecosystem. Construction is planned to start in 2021 with production targeted to begin in 2024. TSMC’s total spending on this project, including capital expenditure, will be approximately US$12 billion from 2021 to 2029.”

This development is likely to be highly antagonistic to the Chinese government. Not only is the US already trying to restrict Chinese access to the US component ecosystem, Official Chinese policy insists Taiwan is part of China. Hence every move closer to the US Taiwan makes will be perceived as a strategic threat by the CCP. It will be interesting to see how TSMC deals with the political fallout from this announcement and it wouldn’t be surprising to see it announce an offsetting move there too.

US moves to expand domestic chip making capability

As global commercial Balkanisation ramps, countries are seeking to make themselves as self-sufficient as possible.

The coronavirus pandemic, and the consequent global shortage of things like personal protective equipment, has brought to a head how dangerous it is to be reliant on other countries for essential kit. The mounting hostility between the US and China, coupled with the fact that much of the world’s manufacturing takes place in China, has served to further stoke concern.

Now we have reports that the US government is in talks with two of the world’s biggest semiconductor manufacturers – Intel and TSMC – to build new fabs in the US. Intel has confirmed it’s in discussions with the Defense Department about improving domestic technology sources, while TSMC has confirmed it has been chatting to the Commerce Departments, but not what they discussed.

Intel has fabs in ten different locations, five of which are already in the US and only one of which is in China. As the name Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company implies, most of TSMC’s fabs are located in Taiwan, but it does have a couple in China and one in the US. In the case of Intel, the US government seems to want a fab that it can call upon to ensure supply of chips in the worst-case scenarios.

The TSMC angle is more intriguing. On a practical level it’s the world leader mobile chip manufacture, an area in which Intel has shown impressively consistent ineptitude. As smartphones have become the single most important smart device, a major interruption to their supply chain would be a significant blow to consumers, businesses and governments alike.

But the really juicy aspect concerns China’s relationship with Taiwan, which it insists is part of China. The Taiwanese people and government beg to differ and the country is a consequently key pawn in many of the geopolitical games China and the US like to play with each other. Persuading TSMC to significantly expand its presence in the US would be a major symbolic victory and seriously antagonise the Chinese Communist Party, which President Trump may consider to be reason enough alone.

The Balkanisation megatrend this would appear to be following raises at least a couple of major issues. Firstly a lot more redundancy looks set to be built into supply chains, as companies and countries wean themselves off just-in-time imports. Secondly the west seems set to adopt an ‘if you can’t beat em, join em’ approach with respect to Chinese subsidising of domestic companies to give them significant advantages over foreign ones.

While this will improve supply chain security, it will also raise prices as companies pass on the additional cost of having to make more stuff themselves and no longer being able to import wage deflation from China. It also seems to herald a permanent enlargement of the state through a greater involvement in the private economy. The cost of this ultimately has to be faced by taxpayers, so it looks like the cost of living is set to be significantly higher for the foreseeable future.

Huawei reportedly partners with European chipmaker

It looks like Huawei is seeking to diversify its supply chains beyond US influence by partnering with Franco-Italian STMicroelectronics.

The report comes from Nikkei Asian Review, but we’re too tight to subscribe, so we can only bring you the top-line claim. Reading between the lines, if the report is accurate, this would appear to indicate a move by Huawei to redirect its supply chain away from US companies. It seems like a matter of time before the US government bans all its companies from doing business with Huawei.

One strong indicator that the story has substance is the fact that it was re-reported by Chinese paper the Global Times. While it isn’t the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, it didn’t get where it is today by rubbing the CCP up the wrong way, so it seems safe to assume the report has the official seal of approval.

The Global Times report quotes a Chinese analyst as saying what a great move this is for all concerned and that it also indicates a strategic move into the automotive sector by Huawei. ST is a supplier to US car company Tesla, so it will be interesting to see if the US tries to push its luck by extending sanctions to anyone who even works with US companies. The European Union might have something to say about that.

Nokia tries to raise its chip game through partnerships

Networking vendor Nokia seems to have concluded silicon design isn’t as much of an in-house strength as it had hoped.

What a difference two years makes. At the start of 2018 Nokia was crowing about its unique processor skills, as manifested in its shiny new ReefShark chipset, and what a differentiator they would turn out to be. By the middle of last year, however, Nokia was forced to admit that things weren’t going according to plan, thanks largely to some strategic missteps concerning 5G.

One of the miscalculations seems to have been going big big on field-programmable gate array (FPGA) chips. These seemed like a good idea because, as the name implies, they could be reconfigured and optimised by the customer after purchase and installation, thus giving service providers the kind of flexibility they need for the 5G era. But all this agility comes at a price, which it looks like not everyone was prepared to pay.

So this week saw a couple of announcements from Nokia concerning partnerships with chip specialists. The first was with Marvell, which Nokia is now working with on a bunch of 5G chips, including improvements to its ReefShark ones. The minutiae of the partnership are not revealed, but Marvell’s thing is chips based on Arm’s microarchitecture, which are ubiquitous in the mobile world because they’re relatively power efficient.

Relative to Intel, that is, which has an almost comical history of trying and failing to introduce its significantly hotter and more power hungry x86 architecture-based chips into the mobile space. So it came as a bit of a surprise to see that Nokia is also enlisting Intel’s help with its silicon efforts. Then again, some of that collaboration is on the server side, where Intel and x86 remain preeminent, so that’s understandable, but we’re told Intel is getting involved in ReefShark too.

There was lots of talk about ‘custom silicon solutions’, which could mean more of a collaboration on the manufacturing side. That would make sense as Intel is apparently a Nokia chip manufacturing partner and its recent missteps have been a contributing factor to Nokia’s challenges. But they are also collaborating on chip design, with the Atom (yes, that brand still exists) P5900 processor cropping up in some Nokia gear.

Of the Marvell partnership, Tommi Uitto, President of Mobile Networks at Nokia, said: “This important announcement highlights our continued commitment to expanding the variety and utilization of ReefShark chipsets in our portfolio. This ensures that our 5G solutions are equipped to deliver best-in-class performance to our customers. As service providers continue to evolve their 5G plans and support growing traffic and new vertical services, the infrastructure and components must evolve rapidly. Adopting the latest advancements in silicon technology is a critical step to better serve our customers’ needs.”

Of Intel Uitto said: “This partnership highlights our continued commitment to ensuring our 5G portfolio is underpinned by best-in-class technology. 5G networks need to support billions of devices and machines, and this massive increase in volume and scale means that existing infrastructure and components must evolve rapidly, adopting technologies and techniques to enable to deploy 5G networks quickly.”

All this seems to amount to a move away from the FPGA strategy and the Intel announcement refers specifically to ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits). That’s probably the right decision, but it still represents a significant strategic climb-down by Nokia. Having spent years boasting about its in-house silicon competence, it’s now having to call in help externally to get its chip strategy back on track.

US reportedly moves to restrict all Huawei access to US chip tech

The US Department of Commerce is said to be weighing new options to further limit Huawei’s access to the semiconductor technologies coming out the American companies.

The Wall Street Journal reported (behind paywall) that the DoC is working on changes to the remit of the “foreign direct product rule” to demand Huawei’s chip suppliers to apply for special licences if they use American technologies and American equipment. The rule currently “restricts foreign companies’ use of U.S. technology for military or national-security products”.

The measures have been mooted for a few weeks but have only just been put forward. President Trump is yet to review it, and not everyone in the administration is in favour of the changes, the newspaper reported. Semiconductor is one of America’s biggest export sectors to China.

The new rules could become a deterrent to all the semiconductor foundries for Huawei, including the Chinese companies, as they could be relying on technologies owned by or using equipment made by American companies. They could be forced to choose between holding on to Huawei as a customer or keeping their legitimate access to American technologies.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Limited (TSMC), the world’s largest contract chip maker, is said to have generated more than 10% of its $35 billion annual income from fabrication for HiSilicon, Huawei’s fabless chip design subsidiary, according to estimate cited by WSJ.

Over the past year, despite the US restrictions on semiconductor export to Huawei, many businesses have managed to continue their business without a special licence, if they could prove the proportion of American-made value is lower than 25% of the total value. The DoC has proposed to lower the threshold to 10%.

If the new measures should enter into force, they would not only disperse the optimism for the telecoms industry following the “Phase-1” trade deal signed between the US and China, but also represent a new escalation of the Trump Administration’s efforts to further hamstring Huawei. Semiconductor fabrication has been an area that China has struggled to gain on their American competitors.

It would also be seen as part of the concerted government actions towards this purpose. The Defense Department has recently dropped its opposition to the government’s efforts to restrict American chip makers to supply Huawei through their overseas facilities.

The WSJ report comes days after the DoJ announced a set of superseding indictments, also days after the DoC granted 45 days extension to Huawei’s “Temporary General License”. At the time of writing, Huawei has not responded to Telecoms.com’s request for comment.

Intel drops $2 billion on AI chip maker Habana Labs

Having once more failed at mobile, US chip giant Intel is doubling down on the datacenter, where artificial intelligence is expected to be ever more prominent.

Spending two billion bucks on AI chip maker Habana Labs is a major statement of intent in this regard. The Israel-based company specialises in programmable deep learning accelerators for the datacenter. Intel already has a strong position in general purpose processors used in that environment, but is under pressure when it comes to AI from rivals such as Nvidia.

“This acquisition advances our AI strategy, which is to provide customers with solutions to fit every performance need – from the intelligent edge to the data center,” said Navin Shenoy, GM of the Data Platforms Group at Intel. “More specifically, Habana turbo-charges our AI offerings for the datacenter with a high-performance training processor family and a standards-based programming environment to address evolving AI workloads.

“We know that customers are looking for ease of programmability with purpose-built AI solutions, as well as superior, scalable performance on a wide variety of workloads and neural network topologies. That’s why we’re thrilled to have an AI team of Habana’s caliber with a proven track record of execution joining Intel. Our combined IP and expertise will deliver unmatched computing performance and efficiency for AI workloads in the data center.”

Habana will remain semi-autonomous with Chairman Avigdor Willenz (pictured) hanging around for a while. Intel says its AI-driven datacenter business is growing 20% annually and will bring in $3.5 billion this year. With datacenters becoming an evermore important component of telecoms networks, this looks like Intel’s best remaining hope of capitalising on an industry that has eluded it for so long.

Europe decides to punish Broadcom before its investigation is complete

The European Commission is in the process of investigating Broadcom for anticompetitive behaviour, but has imposed sanctions in advance of any conclusion.

Broadcom is considered to be dominant in the market for set-top box chips and some fixed line modems. The EC reckons it’s abusing that dominant position by persuading customers to go all-in on its products, thus unfairly restricting competition. The investigation was opened last June but the EC is so concerned about the effects of these practices that it has ordered Broadcom to stop them immediately.

“We have strong indications that Broadcom, the world’s leading supplier of chipsets used for TV set-top boxes and modems, is engaging in anticompetitive practices,” said EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. “Broadcom’s behaviour is likely, in the absence of intervention, to create serious and irreversible harm to competition. We cannot let this happen, or else European customers and consumers would face higher prices and less choice and innovation. We therefore ordered Broadcom to immediately stop its conduct.”

The key word in that quote is ‘likely’. Vestager seems to be saying that mere suspicion is now reason enough for the EC to act against companies pre-emptively, in anticipation of the outcome of its investigation. What if the investigation concludes in favour of Broadcom? This seems to be a dangerous erosion of due process and an ominous precedent for any company that does business in Europe.

Broadcom now has 30 days to do the following or else:

  • Unilaterally cease to apply the anticompetitive provisions identified by the Commission and to inform its customers that it will no longer apply such provisions; and
  • Refrain from agreeing the same provisions or provisions having an equivalent object or effect in other agreements with these customers, and refrain from implementing punishing or retaliatory practices having an equivalent object or effect.

Those restrictions apply until the EC get around to concluding its investigation or three years, whichever is sooner. It’s common practice for big companies to chuck lawyers at these kinds of investigations in order to drag them out, so you can see where the EC is coming from with this kind of pre-emptive action. But due process exists for a reason and the EC seems to be saying it’s better that a few innocent companies may be hurt than any guilty ones go unpunished.

Qualcomm claims 30 5G fixed wireless access deal wins

5G has opened up a whole new channel for Qualcomm to flog its modems through and it seems to have got off to a decent start.

The company has announced that its X55 5G Modem-RF System has been bought by over 30 global OEMs to form part of fixed wireless access customer premises gear that they’ll start flogging sometime next year. The bandwidth promised by 5G makes fireless a viable alternative to fixed broadband in certain scenarios and it looks like that market is picking up.

Here are 34 companies that were prepared to admit they were making Qualcomm-powered FWA kit: Arcadyan, Askey, AVM, Casa Systems, Compal, Cradlepoint, Fibocom, FIH, Franklin, Gemtek, Gongjin, Gosuncn, Inseego, LG, Linksys, MeiG, Netgear, Nokia, Oppo, Panasonic, Quanta, Quectel, Sagemcom, Samsung, Sharp Corporation, Sercomm, Sierra Wireless, Sunsea, Technicolor, Telit, Wewins, Wingtech, WNC, and ZTE.

“The widespread adoption of our modem-to-antenna solution translates into enhanced fixed broadband services and additional opportunities to utilize 5G network infrastructure for broad coverage in urban, suburban and rural environments,” said Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon. “Due to the development ease of our integrated system and industry movement toward self-installed, plug-and-play CPE devices, we expect OEMs will be able to support fixed broadband deployments beginning in 2020.”

In related new Qualcomm has also unveiled a new reference design that integrates 5G and Wi-Fi 6 for all your FWA home gateway needs, claiming it’s a plug-and-play alternative to boring old fixed line broadband. They’ve whacked the X55 modem and the Networking Pro 1200 platform into one handy package that Qualcomm will be hoping companies such those listed above will build into their gear.

“This new home gateway reference design can help ISPs and broadband carriers deliver triple-play home internet to customers, including fiber-like high-speed data, television and phone services, all with support for hundreds of devices, in a high-performance single-box solution powered by the latest connectivity offerings from Qualcomm Technologies,” said Nick Kucharewski, GM of the Wireless Infrastructure and Networking Business unit at Qualcomm.

Qualcomm is showing all this shiny new FWA gear off at the Broadband World Forum event currently underway in Amsterdam. FWA has been a theme of the show for a little while, but this is probably the first year is has the potential to steal the limelight from fibre and that sort of thing. Having said that it’s still hard to see why anyone would opt for that when proper fibre was available.

Skyworks financials reveal the cost of working with Huawei

Mobile chip maker Skyworks solutions has released its financial results for the third quarter of 2019, with a $127 million hole in comparison to the same period of 2018.

In most circumstances, a 16% drop in revenues for a three-month period would send the office into meltdown. Executives and shareholders will of course not be thrilled, but this downturn was expected by pretty much everyone involved; this is the cost of doing business with Huawei.

As you can see from the table below, there are certainly some numbers which will cause a persistent twitch.

Q3 2019 Q2 2018
Net revenue $767 million $894.3 million
Gross profit $312.5 million $442.7 million
Net income $144.1 million $286.5 million
Earnings per share (Basic) $0.83 $1.58

What is worth noting is that there are factors contributing to this downturn outside the Huawei saga. Semiconductor sales across the world are in a trough currently, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) unveiled quarterly figures earlier this week, with the global smartphone shipments impacting financials everywhere.

Perhaps due to a lack of innovation in the smartphone arena or consumers afraid of purchasing new devices with a new ‘G’ on the horizon, shipments have declined. History suggests this is cycler, though the depressed states of affairs can also be contributed to Huawei business.

Skyworks solutions is one of those businesses which is in a somewhat difficult position. There might a brief reprieve for those working with Huawei, though the damage has clearly been done.

In entering Huawei onto the Entity List, effectively banning any US company from working with the Chinese vendor, President Trump released a wave of collateral damage. Skyworks was not one of the worst effected, though as you can see there clearly is friendly fire from the White House.

During last years Annual Report, Skyworks told investors Huawei was one of three firms which accounted for more than 10% of annual revenues. With a third of generated revenues being attributed to three companies, this is not the healthiest position, but in the smartphone segment it is largely unavoidable; there aren’t than many manufacturers after all.

Interestingly enough, while the firm did beat market expectations, this does not seem to have diluted fears from investors.

The management team has greenlit a 16% increase of dividend payments, while there is hope it might be able to continue work with Huawei, but investors are seemingly voting with their feet. At the time of writing, share price declined by almost 7.4% in overnight trading.

This is not a firm which will cease to exist because of these negative events, however it is wounded right now. Huawei is a massive customer for the team and an account which was only getting more profitable as Huawei grew its global smartphone market share. This is not the beginning of the end, but it doesn’t make for the most comfortable reading.