WLAN Gets Small

All the talk about 802.11 moving into the handheld device looks to be coming true, as Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) and Philips Semiconductors (NYSE: PHG) today are announcing low-power chips suitable for putting wireless LAN into devices like smart phones and MP3 players.

Broadcom has the glitzier offering, a single-chip 802.11b (11-Mbit/s over 2.4 GHz) implementation with customers preparing to ship products in time for Christmas [ed. note: Festivus?]. Philips is countering with its first 802.11b chip set, comprising two chips but with power consumption low enough for consumer devices, company officials say.

Products based on the Philips chip set won't hit shelves until next year. "Our customers are not really ready to put this into their mobile phones yet. Our timing is [based on] where they're timing their ramps," says Julie Tipton, Philips's wireless LAN product line manager.

Getting WLAN into a wee form factor is tricky. The difficulty lies in making the chips small and low-power -- and yet cheap enough to be practicable. Some other companies already claim their chips fit the bill, but the Philips and Broadcom offerings appear to be the first 802.11 chips to target consumer devices rather than PCs and laptops.

Philips, a division of Royal Philips Electronics N.V. (NYSE: PHG; Amsterdam: PHI), is a late entry to 802.11b, but the company is hoping to parlay an advantage from its experience putting chips into cell phones and PDAs. "Others have come from this from a computer background and haven't addressed [consumer electronics] specifically," Tipton says.

Broadcom is eyeing the same market, as its one-chip implementation was designed entirely for consumer devices, says Mike Medina, director of product planning for Broadcom's WLAN unit.

Along with its BCM4317 chip, Broadcom is showing off a reference platform -- an 802.11 card measuring 14.8 mm by 26.5 mm, roughly one-eighth the size possible with the company's two-chip 802.11 set.

"It's incredibly small," says Bob Wheeler, analyst with The Linley Group.

Wheeler hadn't been briefed on the Philips chips, but it's possible Philips has a smaller implementation. The company claims its two chips can be used to build an 802.11 card measuring just 300 mm2. (If you do the math, Broadcom's reference card is 392.2 mm2.) Philips expects to sample its own 802.11 single-chip product in the first quarter of 2004, which potentially would shrink the card size to 200 mm2, Tipton says.

A key factor in achieving these sizes was the integration of the RF front end, a mass of 100 to 150 discrete parts that accompanies any 802.11 chip set. By integrating most of that into the chip, the companies cut down the required size of an 802.11 card.

Philips did this by packaging the power amplifier and much of the front end with its radio chip, create an "RF module" (the BGW100), which is packaged as if it were a lone chip. The second chip in the Philips set, the SA2443, is its baseband and media access controller, which is the piece Philips was previously missing.

As important as the size is the chips' power consumption, because 802.11 is a notorious power hog. Any laptop user can verify this, as can those who've bought PDAs with 802.11 installed. "The chip sets out there today have not hit the mark in terms of size and power," Medina says.

The key is to keep the chip deactivated as often as possible. In Broadcom's case, this means the chip "wakes up" periodically, checks for activity, and powers down if there's nothing happening. This is OK with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) specification. Every few hundred milliseconds, access points send out beacon messages, and the client has to be "awake" only every few cycles, Medina says.

Philips likewise uses software algorithms and some specialty hardware to keep power consumption low, says Tipton.

It's interesting to note that Philips is quoting a standby power half that of Broadcom's: 3 mW for the two-chip set compared with 6 mW for Broadcom's chip. (Anything in single digits is OK, says Linley Group's Wheeler.) Broadcom is quoting transmit power of less than 600 mW and receive power less than 400 mW; similar figures weren't available for the Philips device.

Aside from the obvious targets such as PDAs and digital cameras, Broadcom and Philips hope to embed 802.11 in all manner of toys -- car stereos, for instance. Whether consumers will buy such things is yet to be seen. Wheeler, for one, believes.

"The question is how quickly that market will develop, but I have no doubt it will develop," he says. Take the digital camera, for example. It's not much of a stretch to imagine consumers wanting to snap pictures and email them immediately. "It's a speculative market, but, on the other hand, it seems like a no-brainer."

For their next trick, Broadcom and Philips both are working on single-chip 802.11g (54-Mbit/s over 2.4 GHz) and 802.11 a/g (54-Mbit/s over 5 or 2.4 GHz) products, although neither is saying when. It's a trickier problem because of the orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) used in a and g radios, but there's every reason to expect it to happen, Wheeler says.

Philips is definitely pursuing single-chip g and a/g parts and expects to announce them next year, Tipton says. Broadcom is being more vague. "We have all the building blocks to go and do that. It would be a natural progression," Medina says.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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