More Radios, Fewer Chips: Why Wireless Integration is Hot

Without a radio, your cell phone is a small computer that can’t show web pages, check email or even make phone calls. In a sense it’s BrickBreaker playing brick. While it may come as a surprise to learn that it’s radios that do the heavy lifting to keep us connected to GPS satellites, cellular networks, nearby Wi-Fi and in some cases network television, so it is with laptops as well, especially those aiming to be Netbooks or cloud PCs.

In fact there are too many radios, especially on high-end devices. And it’s only going to get worse in coming years as 4G networks using LTE or WiMAX proliferate. Sure WiMAX will begin as a data card inserted into a laptop much like my beloved 3G modem, but in time it will find itself in handheld devices including mobile phones (or so vendors tell me). Meanwhile current 3G and 2G networks will still have to be supported because carriers roll out new networks slowly. Add in radios for other wireless devices, and problems start to emerge.

That’s why chip vendors, from established players like Broadcom and NXP to startups like Wavesat and Altair, are hoping to put multiple radios onto one chip. And many of them are turning to software to do it. NXP, for example, has created a software-defined modem that can toggle among LTE, HSPA, UMTS, EDGE, GPRS and GSM networks.

Carsten Schimanke, marketing manager for business line cellular systems with NXP, says that company’s decision to build multiple modems onto one chip was an attempt to do three things: to make it easier for carriers to support old and new networks; to make it possible for a phone to operate on multiple networks around the world; and to make it easier for handset makers to use one type of network for certain applications, such as offloading voice onto a 2G network while data goes over a faster 3.5G network.

Outside of the cell phone market, there’s an emerging class of Internet-connected devices, such as the Dash Express and the Kindle from Amazon, that also can take advantage of multiple radios on a chip. Raj Singh, CEO and president of Wavesat, a startup company pushing a chip that combines Wi-Fi and WiMAX (and next year will add LTE), points out that these devices need connectivity everywhere in order for them to work. For example in places where a cell network is unavailable but a Wi-Fi network is, such as inside an office building, an Internet-connected device could use that signal.

Obviously the world is moving to ubiquitous broadband with consumer-oriented products, but once the radios are small enough and cheap enough to work anywhere, the different layers of wireless broadband networks could be used in everything — from getting more real-time traffic information to controlling a city’s watering schedule. No single network covers the world, a country or in many cases even a metropolitan area, so multiple radios on one chip might be the future of the chip industry.