“In India, There are 300 Million Users Who Are Yet To Switch To Smartphones”

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Neeraj Sharma, country head – India, UNISOC (formerly, Spreadtrum Communications)

Today, there’s a surge of global smartphone players carrying out significant portions of their engineering operations in India. Smartphone chip manufacturers are beginning to design in India too. Neeraj Sharma, country head – India, UNISOC (formerly, Spreadtrum Communications) chats with Paromik Chakraborty of EFY Group about the company’s design team, how it is driving its India based business, its preparations for the 5G era, and more.

EB: Are cellphone chipmakers, like UNISOC, doing any high-level design engineering for mobile chipsets out of India?
India does have a good talent pool – however, the proportion of development work for a business depends on the maximum value that they can get here. For us, one of the key design teams is based out of Noida in India. The team designs the camera applications. The engineering is done right from the pre-silicon level to the final application stage of the camera, including the driver part as well. Even the Google mobile services applications are done from our India office.

EB: What challenges do you face as a chip business in India and how do you plan to address them?
To be honest, we are still many years away from having a full-scale foundry in India—hence domestic fab creation will take time. From the design point of view, as of now, apart from Samsung, no other mobile manufacturer has a good design team in India, in my opinion.
To address this, we have created a close partnership with Lava, and have signed a licence agreement with the company. We are collaborating to help each other out in building a strong design quotient and, in the process, create smartphones that are completely designed in India. We may even see some phones coming out by next year. Right now, the biggest challenge is the learning curve for both of us since this is the first time we are developing a complete design within the country.
Going further, with staged manufacturing plans and SMT lines being set up in India, the supply chain is set to develop here. I foresee the supply chain being ready by mid-2019, which will give the Indian market a certain price advantage over China. Some of our supply chain partners who visited Indian factories recently gave me similar feedback. The companies that are taking the trouble of setting up production here will reap the benefits soon.

EB: Why has Spreadtrum been rebranded as UNISOC?
Spreadtrum, which specialises in mobile chipsets, merged with RDA, an IoT solutions provider, a few months back to create a bigger brand called UNISOC. The aim is to offer our customers a broader range of products and a wider solutions portfolio, including mobile, AI and IoT.

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EB: How do you plan to enter the IoT domain, post-merger?
Our IoT solutions will be more of a B2B business. Our key component is going to be the module. We already have thought of some of the key areas that we want to focus on, including tracking systems and smart meters, which are bound to see bigger growth in the coming years. IoT is a very segmented market. But coming from a chipset background, we have the technology advantage and are ready for deployments in large scale projects.
Some of our modules are already being sold by our partners in India. However, our contribution is more on the technical side – like ensuring product stability, meeting customer requirements, quality control and so on. We are also exploring the possibility of expanding into the television set domain as that market is booming. Our focus will also include smart TVs.

EB: Is there any scope for new business in the nearly saturated smartphone market?
It is true that there is a lot of competition, but there still is a lot of scope. In India, there are still another 300 million users who are yet to switch to smartphones. We, at UNISOC, are trying to address this challenge – with the focus on making octa-core the prime platform. For entry level smartphones, we are collaborating with our partners to put a minimum performance standard in place so that customers have a much better experience.

EB: How active is UNISOC in China’s 5G launch plans?
UNISOC is actively collaborating in the 5G deployment as China is taking the lead. We have participated in trials with all the major equipment vendors in China, along with operators like China Mobile Communications Corp (CMCC). So, China is all set to launch 5G in 2019, and we are a major part of it.

EB: When do you see India getting its own 5G ecosystem?
In India, some early deployments may start happening in 2020. Mass level acceptance will come by 2022. We have a long way to go.

EB: For the Indian market, are you preparing your products to be 5G compatible?
We are partnered with most Indian telecom operators. We are always in discussion with them about their 5G plans and trials. So, whenever the ecosystem is ready, we will be walking hand-in-hand with our partners.

EB: Where do you manufacture your chips?
We are a fabless company. Our key manufacturers include the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Ltd and the Intel foundry, among others.

EB: Recently, UNISOC had shared some statistics about having a 40 per cent market share in India—kindly shed some light on this information.
UNISOC enjoys an overall market share of over 50 per cent in India. Our stronghold in the 4G feature phone segment, with a market share of 70 per cent, gives us a critical advantage over our competitors. Combined with this is our smartphone market share of 30-40 per cent. Our solutions have been integral to the developing 4G framework in India, with product features like eMBMS, VoWiFi, affordable dual cameras, carrier aggregation, etc. We aim to further strengthen our market dominance by being a major player in the introduction of 5G and IoT in India.

EB: What are your plans to further expand your market stronghold?
One strategy is to ensure we deliver more value to our customers at similar price points. From the technology point of view, there isn’t any gap between us and our competitors. Hence, it all lies in designing the right products and associating with the right partners. In addition, our plans to expand to different verticals (IoT, TV, etc) will also help us grow. One of our biggest advantages is our connect with telecom operators. In China we are working closely with CMCC. In India, we are working with Reliance, Airtel and even Vodafone-Idea. This gives us an upper hand over the competition. Our immediate plan is to focus on our new octa-core processor.

EB: Tell us about your partner ecosystem
We have already partnered with almost all Indian smartphone and feature phone brands including Reliance Jio, Samsung, Nokia, Micromax, Lava, Intex and Karbonn, to name a few.

EB: Do you think the relevance of feature phones is dying out across the globe?
The feature phone is still alive. Apart from India, countries in Africa, many in Southeast Asia and some in Latin America are strong feature phone markets. The feature phone will stay, but 2G phones will not. Most feature phones will become 4G-compatible.

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