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Summary:

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 […]

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.

  1. It’s part of the trend of placing several processing units into a single chip, where the processing units are diversified in their capabilities and tasks.

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  2. All of this sounds good, but I’d be concerned with a) any impact all of these extra waves are going to have on public health and safety for people using them. There are some people that dread the idea of microwaves coming from their phone (despite that it’s downplayed today and there’s no proof it causes cancer, and b) how it will impact power consumption.

    There is an apex of sorts with regards to how much functionality you can squeeze. Unless there is something more advanced than lithium polymer, or they find a way to make the batteries lighter so they can put more juice in them without them impacting the weight, people will have to decided. It just doesn’t bode well when you may have to weigh using your phone to answer calls for a few days, or only a few hours because of all the other things you’re using it for.

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  3. checkout ComMAX(TM) a multimode chipset by comsys communications and signal processing ltd. (www.comsysmobile.com)
    ComMAX is a multimode BB processor supporting:
    mobile WiMAX/EDGE/GPRS/GSM in a single chip.

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  4. [...] Software Defined Radios are slowly evolving many of the Analog and Digital hybrid radio systems that we have all come to love.  Here are some interesting links concerning them… http://gigaom.com/2008/07/21/more-radios-on-fewer-chips/ [...]

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  5. [...] if a company can use software to combine multiple radios that talk to a variety of wireless networks on a chip, a handset maker could, in turn, put one chip in a phone and rather than have the phone optimized [...]

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  6. [...] the 802.11n flavor) for mobile devices. Broadcom is trying to own the segment of the market that wants multiple radios on a chipset, while Texas Instruments tries to keep up. The new chipset allows for use of Wi-Fi in the 2.4 GHz [...]

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  7. [...] the 802.11n flavor) for mobile devices. Broadcom is trying to own the segment of the market that wants multiple radios on a chipset, while Texas Instruments tries to keep up. The new chipset allows for use of Wi-Fi in the 2.4 GHz [...]

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  8. [...] processors also increasingly must deal with multiple wireless radios that are built into mobile devices. The consumer demand for constant connectivity means a [...]

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