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Wi-Fi/Bluetooth combos continue to spread

Posted: 14 Feb 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Broadcom? CSR? NXP? Texas Instruments? Wi-Fi?

In the days leading up to this week's 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, wireless chip makers unleashed a barrage of similar-sounding products for cellular handsets that offer simultaneous support for Bluetooth and wireless LANs. Broadcom Corp., CSR plc, NXP Semiconductors and Texas Instruments Inc. (TI) have each chosen a distinct path to overcome the challenges associated with integrating multiple RF components operating on overlapping frequencies.

Because Bluetooth and Wi-Fi both operate in the 2.4GHz frequency range, they "struggle to be in the same band," said Will Strauss, president of market analysis firm Forward Concepts Inc. While they use different modulation techniquesorthogonal frequency-division multiplexing in the case of Wi-Fi and frequency-hopping spread spectrum for Bluetooth"one can certainly interfere with the other if you are not careful," Strauss said.

Meanwhile, devices from Broadcom and TI and a reference design from CSR add a third RF element, for FM reception.

Broadcom, CSR, NXP and TI are not the first companies to pursue combined Bluetooth and WLAN solutions. According to Strauss, Mobilian Corp. merged Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support in a two-chip set, TrueRadio, released in 2002. However, the technology was subsumed within Intel Corp.'s wireless networking group after Intel acquired Mobilian in 2003.

Other analysts, while conceding that the incorporation of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios in one solution is no easy feat, the said technology advancements make it much easier than it was just a few years ago.

Back then, if you wanted a part to operate at 2GHz, you needed to build a specific circuit, according to Martin Reynolds, a managing vice president and fellow at Gartner Inc. But the advent of sophisticated frequency synthesizers that can modulate a wider range of frequencies has overcome that hurdle. "We've gone from something that is relatively difficult to something that is relatively simple," Reynolds said.

Today, "a lot of the difficult issues are solved within the chip," said Craig Mathias, a wireless analyst at Farpoint Group. Mathias warned, however, that the incorporation of multiple analog radios is still "not a slam dunk."

One more radio?
With vendors now integrating multiple radios into a single chip, the next step could be the integration of the cellular radio along with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and FM. That would be a fundamentally more technically challenging undertaking, requiring the development of microelectromechanical-system filters and other mechanisms.

Cellular-radio integration is "the next logical step," acknowledged John Jackson, a senior analyst at mobile-market research firm M:Metrics Inc., but "right now, it's a step ahead of the volume-market opportunity," since cellular operators have just recently warmed to the notion of including WLAN support in handsets. "It's not obvious that it's something that OEMs would rush to embrace, given the business environment that exists between the OEMs and the operators," he said.

The integration would also be "extremely challenging from a technical standpoint," Jackson said, "particularly where you have a tremendous variety of bands you have to support in the cellular world."

Some question whether Wi-Fi attach rates will ever be high enough to justify integration of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular radios within the same chip. Jackson estimated that by around 2011, 16 to 20 percent of handsets shipped will have integrated WLAN. As with any technology, only a subset of the user base will actually leverage the capability, he added.

"A lot of market researchers say that by 2010, WLAN will be everywhere," Jackson said. "I tend to be a little more bearish."

- Dylan McGrath
EE Times

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