SiBeam: Mystery Chip Chaps
Is the world really ready for yet another high-speed wireless technology?
Chip startup SiBeam and its venture capitalist backers hope so. The Fremont, Calif.-based company announced this week that it has scored $15 million in series A venture funding and says it's making chips that will deliver "gigabit" transfer rates over wireless links.
But you'll have to take their word for it, as the company -- still in "semi-stealth" mode, according to John Marshall, VP of marketing and business development -- isn't ready to talk shop. "We haven't disclosed what technology we're working on," he says.
Here's a hint, though: The company is part of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE)'s 802.15.3 Task Group 3c [ed. note: be still, my beating heart!], which is developing 60GHz "millimeter-wave" technology for high-speed delivery of data over short-range radio links.
And SiBeam is working on developing "higher-frequency communications [chips] in standard CMOS," Marshall allows.
Those four little letters are the key here. CMOS -- or complementary metal oxide semiconductor -- is one of the most common semiconductor types, and it is cheaper to build radio chips in CMOS rather than using more obscure and diverse RF processes.
Currently, 60GHz chips have to be fabricated using gallium arsenide (GaAs) because that compound is faster than silicon, making it useful for the fastest wireless circuits. "To date, GaAs has been required," says Craig Mathias, principal at the Farpoint Group. "I think silicon germanium [a slightly cheaper chip process] is very possible, and some are talking about a pure CMOS solution within a couple of years. That would mean cheap, low-power, and very 'broadband' chips." Proponents of 60GHz envision "performance of 1 Gbit/s and possibly much more," according to Mathias. By way of comparison, the fastest wireless LAN technologies now available have a standard maximum data transfer rate of 54 Mbit/s.
But there's a catch: 60GHz chips aren't going to be causing tech-heads to rip out their WiFi networks or switch off their cellphones any time soon, since the radios will have a range of around 10 to 30 meters, and they won't be able to see through cubicles, walls, or even the air itself over greater distances.
"[60GHz is] the oxygen-absorption band," explains Mathias, "meaning that the oxygen in the air absorbs radio emissions at those frequencies."
This is going to limit the technology's applications. Analysts see the networking of computers and entertainment devices, such as DVD players, iPods, and home stereo equipment, as a large potential market for 60GHz technology. [Ed. note: And it will work flawlessly on the moon.]
"I think 60 GHz will be very hot, but it will take a few more years before you see a lot of it," Mathias reckons.
And 60GHz devices could prove to be strong competition for another much-fancied forthcoming radio technology, ultra-wideband (UWB). One market where 60GHz could uproot UWB is in wireless personal-area networks, says Bob Wheeler, senior analyst at The Linley Group.
"They are talking 1 Gbit/s to 2 Gbit/s at 10 meters. The difference is you can use much higher power levels at 60GHz because it's not overlapping other bands. There is still a pretty big regulatory cloud over UWB, especially in Europe," Wheeler says.
SiBeam hasn't yet said when it might introduce its technology. But Farpoint's Mathias expects to see more announcements in the 60GHz field in the first quarter of next year.
— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung