Flexible chips to let phones do it all

By , IDG News Service |  Mobile & Wireless

A startup claims it has a programmable cellular phone chip that can handle the communications processing for a wide range of protocols, as well as multimedia and application processing, which could drive down handset prices or help add network capabilities to cameras and other devices.

Phones and other devices built with Sandbridge Technologies Inc.'s chips would be able to become just about anything a manufacturer wanted them to be: Wi-Fi handsets, GPS (Global Positioning System) devices, multimedia broadcast receivers and any type of cell phone, according to Guenter Weinberger, president and chief executive officer. Using a Sandbridge chip, vendors could build multimode handsets without adding a separate "baseband" or communications processing chip for each type of network, he said.

Each additional baseband chip that is added to a phone tacks about $5 onto the cost of a phone's silicon, according to Will Strauss, an analyst at Forward Concepts Co., in Tempe, Arizona. That cost, in turn, can translate to about $30 in the phone's final price, he said.

All the major cell-phone chip makers are moving toward single-chip designs that incorporate many capabilities, and Sandbridge probably can't dislodge them from their tight relationships with big handset makers, Strauss said. Still, Sandbridge may be able to get a head start of a year or two, attract some small and possibly larger handset vendors, and put price pressure on the market, Strauss said.
The fabless semiconductor vendor in White Plains, New York, was founded in 2001 and set out to make a programmable baseband chip with the capacity to do many functions with low enough power consumption for a handset, Weinberger said. The first chip based on its SB3000 architecture, called the SB3010, is available now in sample quantities, the company is expected to announce Monday. In addition to baseband processing, it also is powerful enough to handle applications and multimedia processing, he said. The 3010 is designed for 3G (third-generation) handsets, and Sandbridge is looking to add another chip next year for higher speed 3.5G networks such as HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access), as well as WiMax. Weinberger would not quote chip prices but said they would be competitive.

Sandbridge plans to sell its chips to mobile phone makers and let them, along with mobile operators, define what functions go on the chip. Unlike most phone chips, which have to be programmed in assembly language, the SB3000 chips can be programmed in the C language -- a significant advantage, according to Strauss.

"People who code in C are a lot cheaper than people who code in assembly language," Strauss said.

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