EL SEGUNDO, CA – As the mobile-handset market goes, so goes the mobile-handset semiconductor market – and right now both areas are going through a period of consolidation that may lead to a significant winnowing of baseband chip suppliers, says iSuppli Corp.
 
In wireless handsets, numerous smaller players headquartered in China have exited the business during the past few years. This, coupled with the bankruptcy of BenQ-Siemens, has led to an increasing concentration of market share among the Top-5 mobile-handset OEMs, according to iSuppli.
 
In 2006, the Top 5 OEMs accounted for 83% of global unit shipments, up from 75.6% in 2005. This has led to declining opportunities for mobile-handset baseband semiconductor suppliers, the firm says.
 
“Quite a few baseband semiconductor suppliers are now battling for sockets at a dwindling number of handset OEMs,” said Derek Lidow, president and CEO of iSuppli. “With a smaller number of handset OEMs accounting for an overwhelming portion of sales, opportunities for baseband IC suppliers are getting more difficult to come by.”
 
Meanwhile, the overall mobile-handset market is experiencing decelerating growth. After rising by 20.1% in 2006, growth in worldwide mobile-handset unit shipments is expected to slow to 13.1% in 2007, and then to 11.6% in 2008, according to iSuppli. The annual growth rate will continue to decelerate during the following years as the mobile-handset market becomes more mature because of high penetration rates in the world’s developed regions.
 
This, combined with a slowdown in handset shipment growth, has led to a deceleration in the growth of the mobile-handset baseband IC market. After rising by 14.1% in 2006, global revenue growth will slow to low single-digit percentages this year, the company adds.
 
Signs of the stresses being exerted on the baseband semiconductor suppliers are appearing, as growth opportunities become harder to find. Consequently, staying competitive in the race to supply the five leading OEMs requires increased levels of capital, capability and innovation.
 
In August, the ranks of baseband suppliers was reduced by one as LSI Logic Corp. announced it would sell off its mobility products business unit to Infineon Technologies AG.
 
And in September the number of baseband suppliers was further reduced when MediaTek Inc. purchased Analog Devices Inc.'s baseband chip product line.
 
Another example is STMicroelectronics, supplier of analog handset baseband semiconductors, which has struggled in recent quarters as its revenue growth has stalled. The company’s revenue was $197 million in the second quarter, down 10.5% year-over-year, says iSuppli.
 
The baseband IC business has a handful of players with annual revenues of or on pace to be in the $1 billion range: Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, MediaTek and Freescale Semiconductor.
 
This shows that as the mobile handset market is consolidating into a small number of large players, so too is the mobile handset semiconductor space, says iSuppli.
 
Beyond customer consolidation, baseband chip suppliers face another challenge: rising costs. With mobile handsets continuing to add features, baseband IC chips are becoming more expensive to develop.
 
Only a few companies have the margins to maintain development costs in this area. This dynamic is likely to further consolidate market share, resulting in a small number of large-sized baseband suppliers.
 
It’s clear that the baseband market cannot support all the current players. However, how many players will be left when the current phase of consolidation is over is unclear.
 
Unless one of the top-tier players buys another supplier of equal size, there’s no one else left to buy. This may set the stage for war among the existing players, leading to market consolidation, says iSuppli.

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