WiMax Chip Race Begins

Engineers last week finished work on a new version of the 802.16 broadband wireless standard, paving the way for chipmakers to roll out the first WiMax silicon.

At the IEEE meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, the 802.16d Task Group voted to send its draft to letter ballot, the final step in the standards process before ratification. The standard, which will ultimately replace the existing 802.16 standard and 802.16a and 802.16c amendments, and will be known simply as 802.16, is not expected to be formally approved until March, but chipmakers say it is close enough to go ahead with designs for first-generation silicon.

Wavesat, a Montreal-based fabless semiconductor company, says it will be first out of the gate with chips based on the new standard. The company has teamed up with Atmel of San Jose, Calif., to produce the chips, and plans to roll out silicon in May or June.

Intel is also hard at work on WiMax chips, but Wavesat is confident that it will beat the chipmaking giant to the punch. “We believe that we’re six to 12 months ahead of the competition,” says Frank Draper, vice president of sales and marketing at Wavesat. “We were ready to go; we were just waiting for the IEEE.”

Intel spokesman Dan Francisco says the company still intends to be “the first major supplier of WiMax-certified silicon.” He confirmed that the company is on track to introduce silicon in the second half of the year.

The agreement between Wavesat and Atmel was in part a response to the partnerships Intel has been lining up with equipment vendors such as Airspan Networks and Alvarion, according to Jay Johnson, director of marketing at Atmel.

“One of things we’ve seen is that some of the big semiconductor manufacturers have partnered with smaller companies that have key technology to make 802.16 a reality. This was an effort obviously to address that and to make our name in the marketplace and better compete. We’re not a 900-pound gorilla, but maybe we’re a 500-pound gorilla.”

More importantly, Draper notes, the relationship is good for consumers because it means more integrated systems and “much less expensive” systems. He says working with Atmel could potentially lead to a combined 802.11 and 802.16 ASIC for home gateways, and even to chips for mobile phones and PDAs.

“We see these chips in PCMCIA cards that you’ll enter in your laptops and a thousand different other devices that we can’t even think of today.”

He dismisses arguments that Wavesat’s chips may lack certain features, and that it won’t offer a system-on-a-chip (SoC) initially (though that’s in the works), saying it’s more important to just get the chips out there first.

“Our aim is to be in the marketplace, to create a market that everybody’s only talking about now, to have something real.”

Around 15 companies are already using Wavesat’s development kits to design broadband wireless systems, Draper says. He won’t reveal their names, but says that the systems should be available as early as the third quarter.

“They already know the form factor to fit the chip … so they’re already in the design stage, and they’ve got physical systems that they’re testing in laboratories.”

The WiMax Forum won’t start certifying systems until the fourth quarter. Systems must comply with the standard and pass interoperability tests at an independent lab (the group is scoping out labs now).

With a range of up to 30 miles and data rates up to 70Mbps, WiMax is expected to help bring broadband access to rural areas and developing countries where it isn’t economical to deploy traditional last-mile connections. According to Datacomm Research worldwide sales of wireless metropolitan area network (MAN) equipment will top $5 billion by 2007.

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