Chipmakers Partner to Meld Cell, VoFi

Early last month, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Atheros Communications and San Diego-based QUALCOMM Inc. announced an agreement to develop interoperability between Atheros’s Radio-on-Chip for Mobile (ROCm) single-chip Wi-Fi solution and two of QUALCOMM’s Mobile Station Modem (MSM) cellular chipsets—the MSM6550™ for CDMA2000® networks and the MSM6280 chipset for W-CDMA (UMTS) networks. The combined solutions will enable cellular devices to support 802.11g and 802.11a/g wireless LAN (WLAN) technology.

At the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona (Feb. 12—15), the two companies demonstrated their joint solution to about two dozen handset vendors, mobile carriers, and other interested attendees, according to Atheros vice president of marketing, Todd Antes. “Reception was very enthusiastic,” Antes told “Fixed-mobile convergence, UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access), IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem), cellular-plus-Wi-Fi development was actually one of the strongest themes at the show,” he said.

Of course Wi-Fi on mobile phones is not new. “In the smartphone category, I think it’s fair to say that Wi-Fi is well on its way to becoming a check-box feature,” Antes pointed out. (To be clear, ‘smartphones’ are top-tier devices in the $400 to $600 price range.) “The killer application of Wi-Fi for data access cements it as an important feature in the high-end product,” he continued.

“But of course what we think is more interesting going forward—and the point of our announcement with QUALCOMM—is voice. And frankly, to get the mobile Wi-Fi volumes I think are compelling, it needs to move down out of the top price tiers and into the more mainstream products.”

That, according to Antes, is the other point of the partnership: price optimization.

“It’s a fairly efficient solution where our chip literally is controlled by the MSM, which runs all of the voice software,” he explained—eliminating the duplication of application processing power, running multiple protocol stacks, and other inefficiencies of ‘bolting on’ a Wi-Fi chip to a cellular processor. “We’re trying to enable the featurephone category—trying to push Wi-Fi into the mainstream of mobile phones, where you’re talking about the $100-to-$200 phone, that more people can have access to.”

“Based on the size and power that we’re able to achieve in our chipset,” Antes continued. “It’s going to be in products that look very much like your standard cellular phone. It’s not going to be a big monstrosity with a huge battery.”

Wi-Fi has a reputation as a power hog, but according to Antes, improvements in second and third-generation silicon have reduced power consumption in Wi-Fi based phones to the point where “you’re beginning to see talk and standby times that far surpass what people are used to with their mobile phones,” he told Some of these improvements are hardware-specific, of course, including one power-saving technology called ASPD, which when present in both Access Point and client can let the Wi-Fi chipset ‘sleep’ as much as 95 percent of the time—reducing power usage by a factor of 10 to 100.

Antes—and many of the carrier customers he’s been talking to—sees a two ‘areas of opportunity’ for converged dual-mode (cellular/Wi-Fi) voice service: the enterprise and the home. Both utilize the same basic strategy. Inside the building, phone use switches over from the often-crowded cellular network onto the local Wi-Fi network. This can eliminate the kinds of coverage problems that often plague indoor cell usage, especially in larger enterprise premises, and off-loading traffic from the cellular network allows the carrier to reduce rates, passing savings on to the enterprise—or homeowner.

When will this convergence move out of the demo space into the real world? “We launched the chip (Atheros’s ROCm) a little less than a year ago,” Antes said, mentioning early interest from customers in the mobile consumer electronics space, as well as mobile communications. “With this QUALCOMM announcement, we expect further growth in mobile communications to accelerate. First customers are starting to ramp into production now. So, late this quarter, next quarter, and probably for the remainder of this year.”

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