TAIPEI " After keeping a low profile for much of its 3-year existence, wireless LAN chip designer Fodus Communications, Inc., is looking to make a splash at Computex next week with Taiwan's first client-side 802.11 a/b/g chipset.
The relative newcomer has designed both the baseband/MAC as well as the 2.5GHz/5GHz RF component, which it will produce in a 0.18 micron RF CMOS process at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. Samples are already out to customers and volume production is expected in the fourth quarter.
Fodus is keeping quiet about its major investors, some of which are customers that currently use competing silicon. But what is clear is that the chip designer joins a growing pack of Taiwanese firms looking to get a slice of the wireless LAN market. They are all chasing after a sector expected to explode during the next few years.
According to a recent report from London-based Datamonitor, public wireless LAN hotspots will hit 135,000 within three years, up from 31,580 by the end of this year. During the same period, wirelessly connected users will mushroom from 1.53 million to 23 million and revenue from public wireless LANs will hit $7 billion. Market researcher IDC estimates wireless LAN chip revenues will hit $1.16 billion in 2006, up from $331 million in 2001 for a 29 percent compound annual growth rate.
But there won't be any low-hanging fruit in the hypercompetitive market, already overcrowded by American, European and Asian companies. Nearly a dozen Taiwanese companies have announced baseband/MACs during the past year, including networking specialist Realtek Semiconductor, newcomer Inprocomm and chipset designer Silicon Integrated Systems.
Yet only a few companies here, as well as one in Korea, have developed their own RF component, including Ralink, GCT Semiconductor, Airoha, ZyDAS and now Fodus. These firms are looking to the RF chip, especially those made in an RF CMOS process, to give them a cost advantage in a cutthroat market.
Although Fodus seems first to strike with a combo chip, it should soon be joined by at least Airoha when it starts volume shipments in the fourth quarter. ALi Corp. is also claiming to have a dual-band, triple-mode wireless LAN controller, but it lacks an RF front end and so is teaming with Envara Inc., which has a multi-mode RF chip. The duo will also promote the chip during Computex.
With cost as primary concern, the ALi's M4305 trades some performance by foregoing an embedded core and off-chip SRAM, instead looking to the host PC's processor to handle the heavy lifting. ALi is targeting the stripped-down M4305 at cost-sensitive platforms, such as low-end and mid-range notebook and desktop PCs.
Rather than try to ride out the rough-and-tumble wireless LAN chip market, where Atheros, Broadcom and Intersil dominate, it's more likely that ALi will try to leverage the MAC/base-band technology into a forthcoming PC chipset or other products.
Fodus is looking to consumer applications, such as streaming video, to give it momentum in the market. The company has integrated 802.11a capability into the chipset because it believes .11a will be used for transmitting video in the home, while .11g will be used to relay data, said Paul Lin, marketing manager at Fodus.
Fodus' combo chip is WPA compliant and supports PCI, Mini-PCI, Cardbus, USB 2.0, 1394 and Ethernet bus interfaces. The company will sample a combo .11a/g access point chip in the fourth quarter. And next year, Fodus hopes to have a single-chip RF/baseband/MAC sampling in the fourth quarter.