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Broadcom and Philips Reduce Power & Size

Wi-Fi is everywhere, right? Only if you count computers. The ubiquity of wireless LAN connections -- say, in battery powered handheld devices -- is still hampered by the high-power consumption of the connection. Not to mention the size of the chips; it prevents Wi-Fi from appearing in many small form factors. Maybe that's all about to change.

Broadcom and Royal Philips Electronics today both announced their own solutions for smaller, low power 802.11b-based chipsets to power what they hope is the future generation of phone handsets and personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Broadcom's announcement goes a step further than most solutions (Texas Instruments is also hard at work on a small, low-power chip solution), in that its AirForce One Chip line (model BCM4317 for 802.11b) is literally that -- a postage-stamp-sized single chip that incorporates the baseband processor, Medium Access Controller (MAC), the radio, and the power amplifier. It eliminated as many external components as possible. Broadcom's principal engineer, Steve Palm, says the total number of components on the circuit board is "34 instead of 100 like in previous designs."

Philips's new design combines a baseband/MAC chip (the SA2443) with a radio frequency (RF) System-in-Package (the BGW100). This combination leads to fewer than 30 external components -- 26 actually, according to Julie Tipton, Product Line Manager at Philips.

Bob Wheeler, the senior analyst covering the Wi-Fi chip market for the Linley Group, says that handhelds are "a new market segment that doesn't exist in volume today. By reducing the size dramatically, not to mention the power, [these companies are] enabling new applications."

He says that Philips's System-in-Package is not only larger than Broadcom's AirForce One Chip, but will have a cost penalty because it's not as cost effective to build.

The key to wireless power management with a handheld is the power use when the unit is in a sleep or standby mode -- products could still be drawing power if the connection is live though the product is dormant. All of the low-power Wi-Fi chip products announced promise to handle standby power consumption better. Broadcom's Palm says the BCM4317 is under 10mW (or 97% less than power consumption by an Intel Centrino in stand-by); Philips says its standby mode consumption is only 3 milliwatts (mW)

Tipton says Philips is working on a similarly sized/powered 802.11a and 11g solution; Palm was a bit less specific about Broadcom's plans, but indicated that since the CMOS manufacturing for all Broadcom Wi-Fi chips is similar, 802.11g and 11a are not impossible.

Linley Group's Wheeler is expecting it, however. He believes that how Broadcom handles 11g in a single chip is an important factor for the future.

"It's harder [to do]," he says, "but it's clear to me this shows Broadcom will have 802.11g single-chip solutions soon. And that's going to a bigger market impact. This new 11b chip is a market enabler, but it's also just a demo of what they can do."

The One Chip line will also support WPA, Cisco Compatible Extensions (CCX), included build-in Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), and Broadcom's Xpress frame-bursting technology for speed enhancements.

Philips is expecting volume pricing (10,000 quantities) of $12. Broadcom didn't announcing OneChip pricing but has another head start however in that its BCM4317 is sampling with customers now and expects the first products using it to ship in early 2004. Philips will begin sampling later this year.

"At this point," says Wheeler, "Broadcom has the stake in the ground and everyone else has to respond."