SUNNYVALE, Calif. -- The race to build a better radio-on-chip for high-speed wireless data networks is heating up. Atheros Communications Inc. here today unveiled what it claims is a true radio-on-a-chip, or "RoC", in a two-chip solution that uses standard CMOS processes, without the need for a separate power amplifier made with more expensive gallium-arsenide or silicon-germanium technologies.
Atheros' announcement comes at the same time when rival-startup Radiata Inc. in San Jose is disclosing its two-chip set CMOS solution for the same 5-GHz wireless local area network (WLAN) applications. Radiata said its chips--a bandband modem and a 5-GHz radio transceiver--are also design for standard CMOS processes.
In fact, both Atheros and Radiata are planning to use the same silicon foundry, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC). Radiata said its radio transceiver will be fabricated in TSMC's 0.18-micron CMOS technology, while the band modem IC will be made with a 0.25-micron process by the foundry company. Atheros' solution is being made with 0.25-micron processes by TSMC.
Both rivals startups are pricing their IEEE 802.11a- compliant WLAN solutions at $35 each in 100,000-piece quantities.
Radiata is promising to make samples of its devices available in October with volume shipments starting in January 2001, while Atheros said it will start delivering production quantities in the second quarter of next year, with samples provided before that timeframe.
The two companies and others are pushing hard to take an early lead in next-generation 5-GHz wireless LAN systems, which are aimed at addressing some of the shortcomings of today's 2.4-GHz WLANs. The new IEEE 802.11a spec has been developed to not only increase the speed of wireless networks but also address major problems in interference with other radio-frequency (RF) applications, such as cordless phones and the emerging Bluetooth connections.
Even common household systems, such as microwave ovens, have caused havoc with the existing 2.4-GHz networks, noted Rich Redelfs, president and CEO of Atheros. Redelfs said conventional wisdom around the industry is that it could take three or more years to deploy the new 5-GHz WLANs, but those systems will be needed much earlier--especially when Bluetooth wireless connections begin to ship.
"We have moved up the time for products to 12-to-18 months," Redelfs said. To do that Atheros has raised $31 million in private financing since starting two years ago, and it has "rearchitected" the radio for CMOS technology, he said. The company was founded by Teresa H. Meng, who is now Atheros' chief technology officer and an inventor of low-power signal processing techniques while she was a professor at Stanford University.
While other approaches for radio-on-chips attempt to optimize the designs for higher performance GaAs or SiGe technologies, Atheros aimed at changing the architecture for standard CMOS processes, Redelfs said. "We didn't try to fix the CMOS for noise problems commonly associated with the process and RF functions, we fixed the architecture," said the CEO. "We also spent six months digging into the characteristics of CMOS for small signal analog functions," he added.
The result is a two-chip set--called the AR5000--that operates up to 72 megabit-per-second speeds for wireless LANs. The chip set is architected for the 52 Mbit/sec. speeds of the IEEE-802.11a spec for 5-GHz WLANs, but it also offers a "turbo mode" for 72-Mbit/sec. and extended ranges, said the company.
Meanwhile, rival Radiata said it also plans to quickly deploy its "wireless engine" two-chip set for IEEE-802.11a WLANs. The San Jose company plans to demonstrate its chip set at next week's Networld + Interop in Atlanta, Ga.
Both Radiata and Atheros are pursuing a wireless LAN chip set market that is expected to grow from $121 million in 1999 to $785 million in 2004 for office applications alone. A huge second wave of WLAN applications for home networking is expected to result from the higher-speed, lower-cost 5-GHz standard, which will be able to withstand interference from other systems in the home, according to suppliers.
"The introduction of our 'wireless engine' will allow the home networking market to reach its full potential," said Chris Fisher, vice president of sales and marketing at three-year-old Radiata. "With the increasing amount of broadband multimedia services being supplied to the home environment and the large number of appliances desiring networked connectivity, a high-performance yet low-cost networking technology is required."