PORTLAND, Ore.—When Freescale Semiconductor Inc. spun off from Motorola in 2004, some assumed that the new chip maker would be prohibited from making products for cellular phone handsets. But, in fact, Freescale's Cellular Products Group inherited most of the baseband intellectual property (IP) from Motorola and hired its own cellular software gurus to replace those that stayed at Motorola.
Since announcing in early 2009 that it was exiting the cellular platform business, Freescale has begun targeting wireless applications that require long battery life combined with low cost. Now the downsized Cellular Products division is making SoCs targeted at two-way radios and smart meters while finalizing the IP for a new breed of software-configurable multi-mode cellular basebands.
"We believe that the IP we developed for our original Cellular Products Group has unique features that make it more flexible than competing solutions," said David Patterson, vice president and general manager of the Cellular Products division—with a 125 member staff downsized from the 2,000 employed by the former Cellular Products Group. "Our IP combines scalability with small die size and low power consumption."
Freescale's Cellular Products division supports Motorola’s and RIM’s "push to talk" phones in big markets like Nextel, but it has retargeted its baseband and RF expertise in 2010 and beyond at SoCs. Separate "Ruby" and "Amber" baseband IP efforts, along with its extensive IP for making all-CMOS radio transceivers in the range of 50-MHz to 2.6 GHz using orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM), enable Freescale to produce specialized SoCs for two-way radios, wireless medical monitors, smartmeter market and multi-model handsets.
Freescale's Ruby technology harnesses a vector processing architecture that the company claims can be scaled to support multiple communication protocol requirements. Ruby enables very low power SoCs for everything from handsets to basestations, according to Freescale. For instance, for a two-way radio or a GSM handset you need two Arithmetic Units (AU), while a 3G or TD-SCDMA handset requires 8 or 16 AUs, an LTE handset will require 16 AUs, and a femto or pico-cells might require 16 or 32 AUs, respectively, while a full base station might need 32 or 64 AUs.
"We believe that our Ruby vector processing architecture enables the ultimate in integration—offering much smaller dies sizes for our SoCs, which lowers costs compared to other vendors," said Patterson.
Freescale has already partnered with Etherstack Ltd. (London) to market its two-way radio SoC into the burgeoning Digital Mobile Radio (DMR) market. Freescale claims that its SoC eliminates many discrete parts—so many that Etherstack’s reference design that used to require a 12-layer printed circuit board (PCB) can now fit on a four-layer PCB.
The second SoC being developed by Freescale will be specialized for smart meters where both wireless and Power Line Communication (PLC) standards exist, integrating Ruby and the RF transceivers. Smart Meter manufacturers will enjoy the flexibility to update Ruby’s firmware as meter standards evolve in the U.S., Europe and China.
Freescale's other major communication IP technology required for handset basebands, called "Amber,” is the channel encoding and decoding engine for multi-mode basebands that support 2G, 3G, TD-SCDMA, LTE and both single- and multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) antenna configurations. By integrating Ruby and Amber, handset makers can create a custom or semi-custom baseband SoC that handles 2G and 3G today, but will also work in future LTE-networks.
This is interesting since Freescale is actually coming out of Motorola but they never really entered into the RF based ASIC’s required for the mobile equipments. Freescale also might target many other applications where the wireless connectivity is required such as smart meters.
Even though Freescale has exited the "platform" business, it still makes over $300 million a year off its exiting support for the push-to-talk phones made by Blackberry and Motorola. With that kind of revenue stream, the new slimmed down staff should be able to cook up some novel baseband+RF SoCs. Look for the first one aimed at hybrid 3G/4G mobile phones toward the end of next year.
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