Software defines picoChip's WiMax chips

Chip vendor picoChip Designs Ltd. aims to bridge a chasm that is one barrier in the path of WiMax wireless broadband networks.

The Bath, U.K., fabless semiconductor company on Wednesday launched a set of reference designs for both base stations and subscriber equipment that will work for both the current fixed and the future mobile standard for WiMax. PicoChip designs processors so they can be fundamentally changed through the use of different software, according to the company. Processors that can be adapted to meet more than one standard could save system manufacturers time and money in developing new products, said picoChip's Rupert Baines, vice president of marketing.

WiMax is a wireless data and multimedia technology designed to deliver more than 1 Mbps to individual users around metropolitan areas. A standard for transmitting to fixed locations, called IEEE 802.16d, is already in place and the WiMax Forum industry group is working on certifying fixed products. The standard for mobile WiMax -- 802.16e -- is still being developed, and commercial products aren't expected to arrive until 2007.

The fixed and mobile versions of WiMax are so different that chip vendors using traditional chip technology, including WiMax booster Intel Corp., are developing new chips just for the mobile version, said Will Strauss, a networking chip analyst at Forward Concepts Inc. Mobile operators that buy equipment specifically for fixed WiMax and later decide to migrate to mobile WiMax would have to swap out hardware.

By making its chips software-definable, picoChip is trading low cost for flexibility, Baines said. Traditional ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits) cost $10 million to $20 million to develop and have relatively fixed capabilities, but they pay for themselves with high sales volume, he said. With wireless standards changing rapidly, it makes more sense to build in flexibility, Baines said.

PicoChip already is a major supplier of fixed WiMax chips for base stations, supplying its PC6520 reference design to Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson, Nortel Networks Corp., Fujitsu Ltd. and other system vendors. On Wednesday it introduced the PC6530, a software-only upgrade to the 6520 that extends its capabilities to work with the proposed 802.16e mobile standard. The company also unveiled the PC6620, its first reference design for subscriber equipment, which is also software upgradable. Both reference designs include the physical-layer and MAC (media access control) elements, as well as radios from partner companies, according to picoChip. They also include hardware designs and management software, the company said.

Using the same hardware, a system maker could implement fixed WiMax and later deploy mobile WiMax or another technology, according to picoChip. The reference designs that debuted Wednesday also can be configured to support WiBro, a mobile technology used in South Korea that proponents say is based on the mobile WiMax standard.

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