It's in the Chips
By Kevin Werbach, Mon Jul 08 00:00:00 GMT 2002
Computing and communications functions move increasingly closer, and Intel plans on putting both in the same silicon.
The convergence of computing and mobile
communications is usually understood at the level of applications.
Laptops are sprouting wireless cards, as mobile phones deliver data
services such as Web access, networked games and personal information
management. It's almost as hard to find a PC today without a modem
port as it is to find a mobile handset without a CPU, memory and a
display screen. Yet down at the hardware level, communications and
computing functions are still rarely integrated.
other ideas. The chip giant foresees a day in the not-too-distant
future when every chip can have an integrated radio, without significant
increases in cost.
Think about that for a second. Intel
shipped hundreds of millions of microprocessors last year. Those
volumes give it massive economies of scale on everything it produces.
And it's deadly serious about doing for RF what it did for the PC.
At Intel's spring analyst meeting, President and COO Paul Otellini
boasted that the company had 1500 engineers working on wireless
Intel's interest in wireless shouldn't
come as a surprise, says Kevin Kahn, Intel Fellow and director of the
company's Communications Interconnect Technology group: "The
long-term themes within the electronics industry have been the rise of
computing and then the rise of connected computing. It's almost
inconceivable today to talk about any serious amount of computation and
not talk a about connectivity."
Intel executives are quick
to distinguish the vision statement of a radio on every chip from
specific production plans. What gets integrated into what products at
what time is a business question. PDAs and mobile handsets call for
smaller form factors and lower power consumption than laptops, for
example. The key point is that it will be as easy to add communications
functions to a device as today it is to add more computing
Intel is particularly excited about WiFi and other
unlicensed wireless technologies, because that's where it sees the
strongest resonance with its familiar PC industry. Says Kahn: "If
you look historically at our industry, one way of looking at it is as a
sequence of battles beyond chaotic and orderly things. In almost every
instance that I can think of, the chaotic thing won." The PC beat
the mainframe and Ethernet beat centralized LAN protocols. Now, WiFi is
challenging top-down wireless data technologies such as 3G. If history
is any guide, the messy bottom-up approach will win. In addition to
building WiFi chips and devices, Intel is lobbying the US government to
provide more flexibility and spectrum for unlicensed wireless
A tale of two
The involvement of Intel, and of other
companies coming from the PC semiconductor world, heralds significant
changes in communications. Radios and chipsets for wireless devices
often involve specialized analog components, special-purpose
signal-processing chips and exotic materials. "Traditionally,
radios have been one of the last bastions of the art, if you will, as
opposed to the engineering of chip design," observes Kahn. On the
PC side, vendors have perfected commodity CMOS processes for driving
costs down and performance up, resulting in the familiar curve of
Moore's Law. Today's 2 Gigahertz Pentium 4 will go to 3
Gigahertz tomorrow, because it follows well-established manufacturing
and miniaturization techniques.
To get a sense of how the
relentless cycles of the computing world are coming to wireless,
consider the development path of wireless LAN chipsets. It was only
three years ago that the first 802.11b devices hit the market, and last
fall that vendors such as Atheros went into production with higher-speed
802.11a chips. From initial price points in the hundreds of dollars,
802.11b cards for laptops can now be had for $50, and 802.11a cards for
only slightly more. Those price decreases have been achieved through a
combination of higher volume production and denser integration of
functions onto fewer chips.
And that's just the start.
There is already a startup - Bermai - demonstrating a single-chip CMOS
802.11a implementation that can be integrated with existing 8021.11b
designs. A chip that supports 802.11a, 802.11b and wide-area protocols
such as GSM and GPRS can't be far away. On day one, that chip will
be too expensive for most devices. But the wireless superchip will get
cheaper over time. At some point, the premium for including it in any
device that needs one of the supported protocols will evaporate.
Moreover, as the components become cheaper and smaller, they need not be
separate chips at all. They can be components of CPUs and other
Integrating radios into chips is more than
just an engineering accomplishment. It has profound consequences for
the devices and services that make use of those chips. The most obvious
advantage is price. When the addition of wireless communications to a
device adds negligible cost to the device, there's no reason not to
do so. Eventually, predicts Kahn, "communications is going to
become essentially free."
Another advantage of building
RF capabilities into CPUs is that wireless devices will have newfound
smarts, because they will be able to take advantage of the computational
power of the microprocessor. They will be able to sense and adapt to
whatever wireless networks are within range. Such flexibility initially
adds costs. If the goal is to build a radio that handles one frequency
band and protocol, the best solution may be a hard-wired,
special-purpose chip. Move to two radios, then three, and the advantage
begins to dissipate. At some point, the flexible solution always wins.
And not just because there isn't space in a handset for four radio
chipsets. Volume is everything in chip production, because fabs and
equipment represent the bulk of the costs. A chip that goes into 100
million devices may be cheaper than one built for only 10 million, even
though it's more complex inside.
Europeans are accustomed
to a single mobile standard, GSM. As new wireless data technologies
become more important, having devices able to handle multiple bands and
protocols will be essential. Already, 802.11a devices must be flexible
enough to support the different regulatory contours of the 5 Ghz
spectrum band in different parts of the world.
no one system is likely to provide the best, most affordable
connectivity everywhere. 3G will offer wide-area coverage, but it will
be expensive and its data bandwidth will be limited. GSM and GPRS will
be important transitional technologies, especially in the US, where 3G
spectrum hasn't even been assigned. 802.11 offers cheap,
high-bandwidth data connections, but limited range and interference
potential. And before long, there will be at least four standard 802.11
protocols with different characteristics that a device manufacturer may
want to support. Finally, ultra-wideband technology holds great
potential, though it has only recently been approved for limited
commercial use in the US due to interference concerns.
will be a need for devices that can use any of these protocols as
needed, giving the user the best or cheapest connection at a given
moment. The only way to do so is to build radios agile enough to adapt,
which means they must have access to significant computing power.
convergence of computing and communications also poses a business model
challenge to wireless operators and vendors. In hardware businesses,
governed by Moore's Law, today's top-of-the-line device is
tomorrow's entry-level and the next day's junk. Users
generally pay the costs of their devices up front, and upgrade every few
years when the new generation becomes too compelling to pass up.
In contrast, communications businesses follow what one
sharp-tongued observer called Moron's Law. Once services are
rolled out, they evolve slowly if at all. Wireline voice phone service
is basically the same product today as it was fifty years ago, with
minor improvements such as touchtone and call waiting. Wireless
services are somewhat better, driven by competition and technological
improvement. Still, 2G digital services have been on the market for the
better part of a decade, with packet data connections just now starting
deployment. Handsets are replaced with some frequency, but the
underlying networks follow an infrastructure model. Carriers invest
large sums building out their networks, and then recoup their expenses
over time through usage fees.
Because it has depended so much
on specialized hardware and single-purpose networks, the communications
industry has traditionally been vertically integrated. On the other
hand, the PC business is horizontal: there are separate markets for
chips, systems and software. Whether a PC uses an Intel CPU or one from
AMD, it can run the same applications. This industry model has promoted
innovation and competition at every level.
The hardware elements
of communications have already started to go horizontal. Handset
vendors are outsourcing production to the same contract manufacturers
that are prominent in the PC industry. Switching equipment increasingly
uses general-purpose semiconductors. Once connectivity can be
integrated into devices at marginal cost, though, the possibility of an
entirely different communications industry arises.
every laptop, every PDA, every home media server is also an agile
communications device, able to connect to any available network. In
such a world, paying a carrier for access to a single network, with a
limited choice of services and hardware, will seem archaic. There will
still be services businesses linking together these devices and, more
important, the user data that flows across them. But they won't
look much like the integrated communications carriers of today.
When, not if
of wireless and computing is a matter of when, not if. "From where
I'm sitting it looks fairly inevitable," says Kahn.
"Don't get me wrong; there are some hard problems to solve.
But none of them look insurmountable. It's just a matter of
engineering to solve them."
Kevin Werbach is an independent
technology analyst and consultant.