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Four-way battle looms in Wi-Fi arena

Posted: 11 Jan 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Wi-Fi? Bluetooth? CMOS?

Given their sheer volume, wireless handsets are clearly today's golden socket: One good win and a startup can go stratospheric, or an established company can write off at least two other losses. As handsets evolve to become all-in-one, go-anywhere communication and multimedia devices, wireless connectivity companies are frothily throwing everything they have at handset designers to help them meet their rising external connectivity requirements!from simple, low-rate control applications to wireless multimedia downloads and distribution.

The connectivity options range from Zigbee, Z-Wave, Wibree and Bluetooth to Wi-Fi, UWB and emerging 60GHz technologies. But 2008 will be the year of Wi-Fi.

ZigBee and Z-Wave proponents make the argument that their chips belong in handsets for home automation and control, though those formats remain overshadowed by Bluetooth!which has incorporated Wibree!for low- to medium-rate control, audio playback and data connections. The sweet spot for handset connectivity, however, is high-rate wireless multimedia and LAN connections for VoIP, where only Wi-Fi and UWB are in play.

Given UWB's immaturity, its relatively high cost and the global compatibility issues it faces, don't bank on it to make much headway in handsets this year. Indeed, UWB's outlook in this application remains dim until at least 2010, given that it will probably have to be implemented above 6GHz in order to avoid interference with 2.45GHz and 5GHz systems, among others. The added cost for that, together with UWB's inherent range and penetration limitations and the CMOS integration issues at 6GHz, make the technology an unlikely candidate in cost- and space-constrained applications like handsets.

That leaves Wi-Fi, which continues to go from strength to strength as UWB gestates.

As more laptop functionality migrates to handsets, high-rate connections in the office, on the road and at home will be increasingly in demand, while seamless, low-latency network roaming between cellular and Wi-Fi networks for such applications as VoIP will become de rigueur.

Who takes the prize?
Whether all or just one of these trends accelerates in 2008 is anyone's guess. Either way, Wi-Fi will make its mark in handsets this year. The question, then, is which chip vendor will make the greatest headway in winning the socket.

The supplier selection process for the handset platform requires consideration of such "hard" parameters as performance, low power, integration capability (both short- and long-term) and cost. And those are the easy criteria. More difficult are the "soft" parameters, such as global relationships and strategic alignments; a company's aggressiveness and will to win; and, of course, timing.

Right now, the main contenders for Wi-Fi chips are Broadcom Corp., Marvell Technology Group Ltd, Texas Instruments Inc. and Atheros Communications Inc.

Atheros has been a leader in Wi-Fi, offers highly integrated CMOS solutions, and recently made a smart move in acquiring u-Nav Microelectonics for GPS capability (an emerging handset requirement). But its primary focus has been laptops, and it does not yet have a strong handset customer base.

TI's chips, meanwhile, have decent performance, and the company has many of the contacts needed to win handset sockets. But its real strength lies in its digital RF processing technology, culminating in the LoCosto single-chip GSM phone. That integration capability will come into its own when the attach rate for Wi-Fi increases drastically. At that point, a year or so from now, TI will win out based on its integration capability alone.

Until then, however, TI will play second fiddle to the last two contenders. Both Marvell and Broadcom have the needed technology, industry contacts, cellular market track records and strength in Wi-Fi/Bluetooth integration.

Both are also extremely aggressive and unwilling to cede ground. In 2007, Marvell scored a coup with the Apple iPhone win. Broadcom is not likely to take that lying down.

Thus, all things being equal!and based on the soft parameter of "will to win" alone!Broadcom will be the Wi-Fi supplier to watch this year.

- Patrick Mannion
EE Times

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