Carrier WiFi

Intel's Soft Center

CANNES, France -- 3GSM Congress -- Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) says it expects to start delivering wireless LAN chips for notebook computers using "soft radio" technology in two or three years' time.

Intel first mentioned this technology, which could eventually enable wireless devices and infrastructure to support multiple radio types with a single chip, last year, but has gone quiet on the topic since then (see Intel's CTO Has a Smashing Time).

So, when Unstrung managed to grab a few minutes with the chipmaker's very own Mister Blue Sky, Shane Wall, director of emerging platforms [ed. note: every boy's favorite fashion footwear], we popped the question.

"We continue to invest in it," he told us. "In fact, we've increased our investment in the project -- we still believe it is possible."

Intel is developing all-in-one wireless chips with reconfigurable "blocks" that can handle multiple tasks, each of which would normally be dealt with by a dedicated, and separate, analog component of current chipsets. These analog components handle radio, power management, and other functions in present-day wireless setups.

The functions performed by each block at any particular time are decided by software -- hence the name.

The idea is to replace the expensive analog components with a few silicon blocks. The advantage of this is twofold. First off, fewer components means a less expensive and more energy-efficient chip. Secondly, complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) silicon production techniques are cheaper and better understood than the black art of analog radio (RF) chip-making.

Intel isn't at this point yet. Wall says Intel has, to date, mixed analog and digital 802.11 prototype chips built on a 90nm process that combines CMOS and silicon Germanium (SiGe) analog blocks. The goal is to implement this all in CMOS eventually, Wall says.

However, Intel is only a little way down the path to true multiband software-defined radio (SDR). Wall expects to combine wireless LAN and wide area radios on "soft" chips around 2008 or 2009!

"My job is to look three to seven years out," Wall explains.

See! We told you he was Mister Blue Sky.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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