Power-Saving, Highly Accurate Broadcom Mobile GPS Chips Coming in 2018

The new Broadcom GPS chips will bring significant improvements for GPS performance in smartphones, wearables and other mobile devices.

Broadcom's next-generation Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) chips for use in smartphones, wearables and other mobile devices will use half the power and offer much greater location accuracy than its existing chips when they start appearing in new mobile devices starting in 2018.

The new model BCM47755 GPS chips feature a dual frequency design that allows data to intersect from two satellite-generated location points, providing location accuracy improvements down to about 10 inches. That's much better than today's 16-foot location accuracy from the company's single frequency GPS chips that are used in a multitude of devices.       

The greatly-improved location capabilities of the upcoming chips means that vehicle GPS systems will also improve significantly, which is an important factor as in-vehicle navigation systems will need to report vehicle lane locations much more accurately.

Existing GPS systems often can report lane change requirements too late for drivers to make lane adjustments, due to poorer location accuracy. The new chips support the dual frequency capabilities of the Galileo global satellite system being built by the European Union.

"A big benefit of dual frequency chips is they can cope better with reflections off buildings in urban environments," Manuel del Castillo, the marketing manager for Broadcom, told eWEEK. "In urban areas, many radio frequency conditions can make location reporting inaccurate" using existing chip designs.

The BCM47755 series chips will supersede the company's existing BCM4774 series single frequency GPS chips, which were introduced in 2014. The new model chips also use less than half the power of previous generation chips, which will have a proportional impact on the battery life of mobile devices that incorporate them.

Broadcom GPS chips are being used in a wide range of flagship smartphones today, including some Apple iPhones, Samsung Galaxy and Note handsets as well as the Huawei P10 and P11 phones, del Castillo said.

Device makers typically buy and use cellular modems with accompanying GPS chips from two different manufacturers, which can include Qualcomm, Intel and others, for their smartphone models to avoid vendor lock-in and supply shortages, he said.

Qualcomm modems include the company's own embedded GNSS chips, while modems from Intel or HiSilicon use Broadcom GNSS chips, according to del Castillo. Various phone models from device manufacturers can include different components.

The new Broadcom chips are expected to come to market starting in the first quarter of 2018 in new wearables, del Castillo said.. The first smartphones with the improved chips will likely launch sometime in the 2018 second quarter, he said.

To promote the use and acceptance of the new dual frequency GNSS chips in future mobile devices, Broadcom created a dual frequency industry alliance several years ago and invited industry competitors to participate, said del Castillo. The acceptance by those vendors and the inclusion of the technology in their products will be important for mobile device manufacturers to bring the latest features to their devices, he said.

"We do need the industry to move toward this," he said. If Broadcom is the only one supporting the technology it would be harder to convince device makers to build dual-frequency chips into their products, he added.

Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research, said he does see the Broadcom chip developments as significant but that much will depend on whether other companies will adopt the new specifications for dual-frequency designs.

"All that aside, improving accuracy and reducing battery consumption would solve two big pain points for GPS use today, and for people living in dense cities the improvements should be particularly good," said Dawson.

"Anyone who's ever tried using a phone navigation system in Manhattan knows how terrible it is based on today's technology. GPS and location services in general continue to be one of the hardest things on smartphone batteries, so reducing power consumption could be a big boost to smartphone battery life overall," said Dawson.

Another analyst, Avi Greengart of GlobalData, agreed that the performance gains from the upcoming chips could be significant.

"GPS is a modern miracle, but for your device to know where you are requires a constant power drain," he said. "Any significant improvement in power efficiency or accuracy will be warmly welcomed by OEMs and consumers alike."