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IBM bids for personal area network crown

Short range radio chips?

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IBM's bid to open up chip technology that could be used as a basis for high speed in-room networks, seems destined to flounder.

IBM stood up at the Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco this week and said it had a component that would allow electronic devices to transmit and receive ten times faster than today's Wi-Fi networks.

Really this was about using a combination of Silicon and Germanium to make radio chips that operate up in the rarified atmosphere of 60GHz, a line of sight range that has little wall penetration and which is used almost exclusively to create expensive line of sight high powered, long distance wireless fibre in the west and mesh in Japan.

What the paper doesn’t say, but we suspect, is that using millimeter bands around the home would mean signals could be interrupted by simply walking between two devices.

The breakthrough here for IBM is that previous chip designs trying to exploit this spectrum have been too large, expensive and difficult to build, often based on Gallium Arsenide, which is corrosive and easily infected by impurities. These technologies are required because of their extremely fast switching speed compared with simple Silicon.

IBM says its design allows embedding of antennas directly within the chipset package, further reducing system cost and a prototype chipset module, including the receiver, the transmitter, and two antennas, would occupy the area of a small coin.

IBM is the global leader in chip packaging and a constant focus of its chips designs over recent years has been to reduce inter-chip communication, rather than directly drive up chip processing power.

IBM said the technology could be targeted as a 60GHz wireless personal-area networks in the 10 metres and below range. This is likely to be in extremely low power ranges that would cause no interference outside, say, a living room.

This technology might enable broadband video distribution to stream an uncompressed high definition video signal from a DVD player to a plasma display mounted on a wall. The trouble is that UWB technologies, particularly those from the WiMedia Alliance, are well positioned to take this market over the next 18 months or so, with the added advantage that they could operate in spectrum where the signal is not so easily disrupted.

However this IBM process might feasibly be used as a way to build UWB chips, but even Silicon Germanium is unlikely to reach the price point that these chips will eventually need given they will be manufactured in hundreds or millions once they are standardised, and there are efforts to massage CMOS techniques into this speed range.

Separately, IBM said this week that Freescale Semiconductor had joined its Power.org effort to promote the Power range of processors which drive most of IBM’s servers and is at the heart of all IBM chips, including those used for every major games platform (such as the Cell chip which will drive the Sony Play Station 3).

Freescale, of course, is one of the original Power designers. The two companies got together to create a new chip architecture, which was initially embraced by Apple to drive its Mac PCs back in the early 1990s. Apple has only just departed from the architecture in favor of Intel chips.

Freescale will become a founder member of Power.org and join the Power Architecture Advisory Council which guides the direction of development for the processor core.

Copyright © 2006, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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