Previewing Intel’s Cognitive Radio Chip

While all-in-one chipsets supporting both 802.11b/g in the 2.4GHz radio frequency band and 802.11a (in 5GHz) — sometimes called dual-band or even tri-mode for the a/b/g support — have been around a long time, Intel this week presented a paper and a test chip that includes all of the above plus the future 802.11n standard. The single chip can also integrate formerly extraneous components such as power amplifiers.

The technical paper was presented at the annual semi-conductor research Symposia on VLSI Technology and Circuits in Kyoto, Japan. It outlines how the chip giant will make the system-in-a-package using the low power CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) method with a 5GHz power amplifier meeting all requirements by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

“The key thing is that it’s made using the CMOS process,” says Manny Vara, a technology strategist with Intel’s R&D Labs. “It’s the same process we use in our fabs [fabrication facility] to make Pentium 4 and other microprocessors and chipsets.” He says other materials, such as Silicon Germanium (SiGe)  are “lower volume and more expensive due to the process and materials.” He says, once you build something like this in CMOS, you can integrate the features into other chips; he cites  the Level 2 cache built in to today’s Pentiums as an example.

While today’s system processors and motherboard chipsets don’t have wireless built in — they’re usually added via a secondary card like a PCI or miniPCI card — Vara says in a few years, that wireless will be integrated along with everything else, most likely with the system chipset, not the main processor, though he admits it is a possibility.

“The fewer chips on the motherboard, the cheaper it’s going to be,” says Vara.

The company fabricated the test chip to demonstrate at the symposium. It was created in a 90-nanometer (nm) process, which Vara says is today’s cutting edge for CMOS designs. However, the future of these chips could be in the existing 130-nm process that is less expensive. That won’t be decided until Intel is on the track of turning it into a product and deciding on just what kind of performance it will have to deliver.

“The difficult part of building the chip is that 802.11n doesn’t exist yet,” says Vara. “We’ve been working with companies on the standard, so we know we need more bandwidth.” The test chip includes channels up to 40MHz, likely to be either a requirement or an option in 11n.

802.11n is a high speed wireless networking specification still in the works with the IEEE’s 802.11 Working Group. Specifically, the 11n Task Group remains at odds with two major industry consortiums unable to get the “super-majority” vote needed to become the standard in the last two meetings. It is hoped that the two proposals — TGn Sync (including Intel) and WWiSE, as well as lesser offshoots that may also be back on the table — are in negotiations to compromise  on where 11n is headed.

802.11n won’t be finalized until at least 2007, which is probably the same time frame for Intel’s new multi-802.11 chipset.

Intel’s plan for the future is to make cognitive chips that will support several different radios, for both local and wide area networks with smart antenna.

“The end goal is one single radio chip that can convert itself into a different chip. A reconfigurable radio,” Vara says. “Imagine a future laptop that has this chip, you open the computer, you’re in Starbucks with Wi-Fi and the laptop can tell. It reconfigures itself to talk that language. If you’re somewhere else, with Bluetooth, or Wireless USB [ultrawideband] or even WiMax in the future, again, you would have the smarts and capability to have it turn into whatever radio you need. That’s the holy grail. To get there, we need to take step like the one announced today. ”

According to ABI Research, Intel recently passed Wi-Fi rivals Broadcom and Atheros to become the number one seller of Wi-Fi integrated circuits, entirely through sales of Centrino-brand chipsets in laptops. However, the firm also says unless Intel diversifies into areas like chips for access points, others will continue to grow as well.

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