All-CMOS Solutions Make Splash in 802.11b Market

By Bob Liu

January 22, 2002

Semiconductor giant Broadcom, and Silicon Valley startup Marvell, are entering the WLAN chip market with a splash -- both claiming development of the industry's first all-CMOS solution, which would substantially lower fab production costs.

Despite their late entries into the chipset market for wireless local area networking (WLAN), two chip companies were hoping to make a big splash on Tuesday with the claims they have each independently developed the industry's first all-CMOS solution for chipsets based on the IEEE 802.11b standard (a.k.a. Wi-Fi).

Marvell on Tuesday announced the 88W8200 -- its baseband processor -- as well as the 88W8000, which the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company claimed to be the industry's first true 802.11b single-chip radio design. But not to be outdone, Broadcom Corp., the Irvine, Calif.-based semiconductor giant, announced it has entered the WLAN chipset market with its BCM2051 2.4GHz direct-conversion RF radio and the BCM430x family of baseband processors. Both companies are claiming to have developed all-CMOS techniques for fab production -- which, in laymen's terms, means a digital process that substantially lower production costs.

While companies like Atheros Communications have already staked claims on all-CMOS solutions for the 802.11a market, existing 802.11b chipmakers like Intersil, Texas Instruments and Agere have generally relied on an analog fab production method known as Silicon-Germanium (SiGe) (pronounced "Siggy") to mass produce the radio (RF) portion of their chipsets. (Another analog technique called Gallium Arsenide (GaAS) is used to produce the power amplifier (PA) portion of the chipset but that's neither here nor there.)

"We see this as being an incredibly important milestone," Gary Smerdon, Marvell's vice president of Marketing for the Communications Business Group, told InternetNews.com. "Implementing RF circuits in CMOS has been a focus of industry and university research for the past decade."

Still, that hasn't stopped chipmakers like Intersil from arguing against CMOS RF production. While it's true that CMOS simplifies mass production by creating "fab-portability" (meaning you can then take the manufacturing process to any fab production plant around the world), the technique is still difficult to perfect and does increase the risk of lower quality fab output.

However most analysts still generally agree that CMOS represents the zenith for silicon fab production. For example, the MAC/baseband portion of a two-chip solution is mostly done in CMOS. And Intersil and other 802.11b players hope to make their own CMOS announcements later in the future.

"There is a downside with CMOS but, once you perfect the process, you should be able to get lower costs," said Navin Sabharwal, vice president of Residential & Networking Technologies at Allied Business Intelligence.

Yet while both companies generally agreed on the importance of CMOS fab production, each was quick to point out their respective superior characteristics. Broadcom explained that its BCM2051 is a direct-conversion CMOS IC, which essentially streamlines the chip by combining two functions into one.

Meanwhile, Marvell said its product is newsworthy because they have integrated the PA into the CMOS process to create a true single-chip CMOS solution.



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