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Startups push for WiMAX cellphone

Posted: 01 Jul 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Rick Merritt? EE Times? WiMAX? WiMAX RF chips? Altair Semiconductor?

Two silicon startups that hope to bring WiMAX to cellular handsets have emerged from stealth mode. The venture activity underscores the rising hopes for a still-controversial technology that some say will enable better mobile video and be a contender for a fourth-generation, Internet Protocol (IP)-based mobile network.

Both Altair Semiconductor and Troicom Inc. plan to sample their first silicon in late 2007 and are keeping technical details under wraps. But both say they are designing a combined media access controller and PHY chip that will work with third-party WiMAX RF chips.

WiMAX is based on the IEEE 802.16 standard and has its roots in fixed-wireless broadband technologies, such as local multipoint distribution service. Intel Corp. fired market excitement about the technology by pledging to blend it with 802.11 Wi-Fi in its Centrino notebook chipsets starting 2007. Many see the greatest opportunity for WiMAX, however, in its potential as a contender to succeed third-generation cellular radio technology.

The rough concept of 4G cellular is an IP-based network that taps the Internet for content, rather than proprietary server farms at carriers. In this vision, emerging mobile-TV networks based on DVB-H and Qualcomm Inc.'s MediaFLO will be transitional services until all broadcast video is carried over the Web.

"That's what we'd like to see," said Scott Durchslag, general manager for mobile devices at Motorola Inc.

Even within Intel, a furious debate is raging about whether the plan for WiMAX notebooks in 2007 is realistic, or whether the longer-term opportunity for WiMAX handsets three to five years out is more significant, said Kenneth Dulaney, a distinguished analyst at market watcher Gartner, speaking on a panel.

The handset vision for WiMAX spawned the formation of Altair Semiconductor and Troicom in 2005. Both companies said their main goal is to achieve the lowest power consumption.

Altair claims its Prophet device will consume just 1mW in standby mode. It will maximize sleep time by incorporating system-level features, co-existing with other network protocols and sporting a fast signal acquisition time for WiMAX, said Altair CEO Oded Melamed.

"We are kind of close to each other [in overall concept]," said Troicom CEO Brandon Bae, speaking of Altair in an interview.

The Troicom MX1000 aims to have peak power consumption below 500mW. That's the level for the best 802.16d silicon to date. The recent .16e standard for mobility typically demands more power, however, said Bae. The best Wi-Fi chips for handsets get below 100mW peak, he added.

Handset makers' three top priorities for WiMAX silicon are "low power, low power and low power," said Bae. "It's going to take a lot of sweat," he added.

Troicom aims to demo a fully functional FPGA-based version of its device in September and sample the ASIC version in Q3 2007. A test chip will first be fabricated in 130nm technology, but a final commercial design may require 90nm, the company claims.

Market watchers suggest that as many as 300 million phones might use WiMAX by 2010. However, to reach such volumes, chip costs would need to hit the $5 level that handset Wi-Fi silicon sells for today.

Both startups have plenty of competitors, including BeCeem Communications Inc., which is working with Intel on WiMAX chips for notebooks. "You need a different architecture and power-management techniques for handsets and notebooks," said Altair's Melamed.

Other companies working on WiMAX silicon include Fujitsu, Runcom, Samsung, Sequans, TeleCIS and Wavesat. One source said Marvell is quietly working on WiMAX chips, too.

Cut to the video
Handset makers and others say WiMAX could bolster the quality of mobile video, something many companies are dabbling in today with mixed experience and some trepidation.

"WiMAX changes the game in quality of video," said Durchslag of Motorola. Over-the-air mobile video is compromised in resolution and frame rates, he added, comparing over-the-air and WiMAX to analog and HD video.

Motorola is developing a handset focused on video, just as its Rokr phone was focused on music, he said. However, WiMAX is still beyond the reach of any concrete product plans.

"We are now working on our 2007 road map, and we've only done 2008 strategic planning. We see WiMAX as a big opportunity down the road, but right now we are trying to get 3G out," he said.

Research in Motion Ltd (RIM) is even less bullish on mobile video, in part because video requires more bandwidth than most cellular systems can offer, and RIM's main focus has been on business users, said David Werezak, VP of RIM's enterprise group. Nevertheless, RIM will roll out a multimedia Blackberry phone later this year, he added.

A Microsoft executive also expressed mixed feelings about mobile video and emerging mobile TV services.

"There's a degree of frantic experimentation in this space," said Peter Knook, senior VP of the mobile and embedded division at Microsoft, "but no one is clear on what the technology or business should be. We've yet to find out what the content model is, too."

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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