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Broadcom: One-Chip Wonder?

Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) is preparing single-chip 802.11b (11-Mbit/s over 2.4GHz), and 802.11g (54-Mbit/s over 2.4GHz) products that might be the subject of a September 9 publicity blitz.

That is, Broadcom is making a big, big deal out of it, with a 30-minute public Webcast planned for September 9. A spokeswoman wouldn't confirm or deny whether or not the event has anything to do with single-chip products.

We do know Broadcom is developing single-chip 802.11 products, though. For one, acting CEO Alan E. "Lanny" Ross has said so during conference calls with analysts, and multiple sources have confirmed that work on shrinking the silicon is in progress.

More importantly, Broadcom has to do this, just as birds gotta fly and fish gotta swim. Chip designers continually try to squash more functions into smaller spaces, and Broadcom prides itself on having the expertise to glom multiple pieces of silicon into one. And -- guess what -- its current 802.11 offering consists of two chips.

In fact, the "single-chip" label may be somewhat debatable, because it appears Broadcom won't incorporate the power amplifier into the chip. Still, the word is that the company plans to mash a baseband, media access controller (MAC), and radio into one device for 802.11b or 802.11g.

That's all swell, in a geeky kind of way, but why all the fuss? Because a "single-chip" offering could be crucial in adding 802.11 to consumer products such as cell phones, where battery life and size are critical. Broadcom -- like some analysts -- might consider one-chip products as a major turning point for wireless LAN networking, allowing 802.11 to move beyond laptops and into larger-volume devices.

But being "single-chip" might not be such a big deal. In an earnings call last week, Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: MRVL) CEO Sehat Sutardja said his company's two-chip offering has power consumption low enough to work with cell phones and PDAs. "A lot of the devices [chips] out there are optimized for laptop PCs," he said. "Our solutions are definitely more suitable for the consumer market."

"I really don't care if it's one chip, half a chip, three-quarters of a chip, or five chips," says analyst David Wu of Wedbush Morgan Securities. "What [OEM] customers care about [in 802.11] is low power and a low price."

Wu thinks Marvell's claims could have some merit. "They had a very advanced design," he comments. "Their problem was being late to market."

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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