The emergence of "personal-area networking" is giving rise to a new crop of wireless-technology developers that could shake up the ranks of the established players.
Among the newcomers is NeoSilicon Inc., a freshly funded fabless company that is combining radio-frequency and microprocessor technology on the same chip.
While that in itself is not a new idea, the San Jose chip company aims to do what few have been able to accomplish --integrate RF on a pure CMOS process, thereby enabling a wide range of low-cost wireless applications like Bluetooth and WLANs.
The RF-on-CMOS idea is so compelling that it caught the attention of two venture-capital firms, Bessemer Venture Partners and Norwest Venture Partners. They have jointly ponied up $7.2 million to finance NeoSilicon's product development, sales, and staffing.
Still, the four-month-old start-up is up against entrenched giants such as Conexant, Intel, Lucent, Philips Semiconductors, and Texas Instruments. These companies produce a similar technology, Bi-CMOS, which mixes bipolar and CMOS on the same die. Another fabless company, Silicon Laboratories Inc., is already shipping RF-on-CMOS, according to George Bechtel, an analyst at Strategies Unlimited, Mountain View, Calif.
"The key for many of these companies is to take advantage of CMOS with clever circuit design," Bechtel said. "One of the key areas in RF circuits is to be able to reduce the noise. I've seen some specifications that are coming real close to being able to replace BiCMOS with RF CMOS in the next few years."
With venture-capital support in hand, NeoSilicon wants to keep quiet about product specifics. But the company is targeting its first product for release in 2001. Though it has yet to produce a prototype, by bringing CMOS integration to RF applications, NeoSilicon will be able to target the price-sensitive home-networking and personal-connectivity markets, and the company is putting key partnerships in place that will give it the push needed to outpace the competition, according to chief executive and co-founder David Tahmassebi.
"Many people say silicon insulators are the way to go," Tahmassebi said. "We believe that in the long term, integration and cost reduction is what makes sense. The only way to do that is through developing the RF-on-CMOS."
For customers, NeoSilicon's technology will mean cheaper chips that consume less power. The one-chip technology is expected to lower the cost of adding wireless capabilities to consumer-electronic and computing devices.
"RF-on-CMOS brings lower-cost RF chips, and, of course, the largest market today for those devices is the cellular market," Bechtel said. "That includes all the wireless devices below 2.5 GHz. One of the areas to receive the largest attention in recent months is Bluetooth. If you can build a Bluetooth chip in CMOS, then you'll probably meet the target price of a complete chipset for less than $5."
NeoSilicon said its technology will make it easier to design new consumer products such as Bluetooth-enabled devices that can talk to each other. But Bluetooth is only the beginning. The company will also address consumer markets that want to access the Internet through wireless links, using the 802.11 standard and shared wireless-access protocol communication specifications, according to Tahmassebi.
The wireless market that encompasses RF-on-CMOS remains largely undefined. RF-on-CMOS devices will operate on varying data rates, distances, frequencies, and signals, providing coverage for a broader range of technologies than just Bluetooth and third-generation digital-cellular handsets, according to analyst Bob Merritt of Semico Research Corp., Phoenix.
"In addition to Bluetooth, the RF-on- CMOS devices will include business applications such as bar-code readers for warehouses," said Merritt, who is based in Redwood City, Calif.
"There also is a home-RF alliance looking at products that communicate information within the home, such as Philsar Semiconductor's tiny new transceiver chip," he added. "The chip is small enough to fit in a coffeepot's handle and can be used as a complete transmitter receiver, allowing appliances to communicate with each other."
Although communication among home appliances remains futuristic, time-to-market for NeoSilicon becomes even more critical as the race for RF-on-CMOS heats up. Larger companies see the potential in RF-on-CMOS, and continue to acquire smaller innovators that are developing the technology, such as Conexant Systems Inc.'s recent acquisition of Philsar.