High-Speed Silicon Arrives

With a 60-gigahertz radio chip in your high-definition DVD player, you wouldn't need a cable to connect it to your high-def TV. As more and more devices are connecting to one another wirelessly, this would seem to be a no-brainer to make. One problem: price. Such chips—made with expensive gallium arsenide technology—are available. They just don't present economies of scale. Only recently have researchers been able to build chips in this rarified portion of the spectrum using inexpensive (and easy to package) silicon, according to Spectrum Senior Associate Editor Samuel K. Moore in this month's story "Cheap Chips for Next Wireless Frontier".

Moore fills us in on what's going on at two advanced labs working on the problem—and what the IEEE is doing about it.

At the University of California at Los Angeles, a group headed by IEEE Fellow Behzad Razavi is set to unveil transceiver components built in a widely available and inexpensive silicon process technology. At IBM's Watson Research Center, in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., a team led by Brian Gaucher recently completed efforts on making millimeter-wave radio chips using silicon-germanium technology.

Gaucher's group built separate transmitter and receiver chips with antennas set right in the plastic package, eliminating the need for interconnects and economizing on packaging. The chips communicate at 630-megabits per second over a distance of 10 meters. Razavi's team is making key parts of their transmitters and receivers using 130-nanometer and 90-nm silicon CMOS manufacturing technology—the same process used to make microprocessors.

Razavi told Moore that his team is trailing Gaucher's at present, but they hope to overtake IBM coming down the stretch. He points out that radio chips, and 5-GHz Wi-Fi radios in particular, started out in nonstandard transistor technologies, but engineers found a way to get ordinary silicon CMOS to do the same job for less money.

Whichever team wins the race to the easiest-to-manufacture, lowest-cost 60-GHz radio chip will reap substantial rewards. Many will mark the breakthrough in high-speed silicon as an important advance, including the IEEE. The year-old IEEE 802.15.3 Task Group 3c is already at work on specifications for such chips in a 2-Gb/s short-range, personal area network, according to Moore. And companies such as Fujitsu, Freescale, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Philips, and Samsung have pledged to participate in writing the standard this fall. (The next meeting of the task group is scheduled for 16-21 July 2006 at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego, Calif..)

We'll all win with what these engineers come up with.

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