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The August 15, 2004 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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"Software Based Radios" for Wireless: Interview with picoChip

We recently saw a report saying that a British chip maker called picoChip had demonstrated a "software based" modem for WiMAX base stations. It said their technology would allow "equipment manufacturers to upgrade to the formal 802.16d specification down the road, as well as to other future 802.16 amendments."

We were intrigued by this announcement. While we've heard that "software controlled radios" would be important for future wireless applications, we didn't realize they were available today. To learn more about picoChip's products and plans, we talked on the phone with Rupert Baines, Vice President of Marketing.

picoChip is based in Bath, England, an old and beautiful city we visited a few years ago, famous for its Georgian architecture and spectacular Roman Baths. We hadn't thought of Bath as a place for advanced chip technology, so we asked Rupert why picoChip was based there. He explained that the nearby city of Bristol is a center for UK chip design: "there are more chip designers in Bristol than anywhere else". He said the University of Bristol is very good, and many chip companies including Conexant, ST, Infineon and Intel have design groups in Bristol.

picoChip PC101 --> Click for larger picturepicoChip builds high-performance processors optimized for building flexible wireless base stations. They introduced the PC101 18 months ago, and have started sampling its successor, the PC102. These are based on a "massively parallel" architecture: each chip has hundreds of 16-bit RISC processors interconnected by a 32-bit bus; the processors come in several versions, optimized for different functions. We've been used to thinking about processor performance in terms of "millions of instructions per second" or MIPS, but each picoChip device provides hundreds of GIPS (giga-instructions per second)--by contrast, the fastest Pentium today is about 10 GIPS. And it's easy to couple picoChip devices together to get nearly super-computer power from a handful of chips on a board.

To complement its processors, picoChip provides programming for wireless applications, some free and some for an added fee. Rupert explained that for some customers "we supply libraries of typical code available for free, but they must customize it & complete it." On the other hand "for WCDMA and WiMAX we have software reference designs. These are complete, tested, compliant, warrantied full implementations. And we do charge separately for this code."

picoChip has released both libraries and complete reference designs for the European 3G standard UMTS/WCDMA FDD, and is developing designs for other "flavors" of 3G.

We have written before about WiMAX, most recently in The WiMAX Drumbeat. WiMAX is developing through several stages. The original standards were 802.16 and 802.16a; these have now been consolidated into a new published standard called IEEE 802.16-2004 (but sometimes still called 802.16d). The 802.16e standard, expected in 2005, will add mobility.

picoChip says that base stations designed with their chips and reference designs will support 802.16a initially, will be software upgradable to 802.16-2004 to pass WiMAX certification tests, and will later be further upgradable to the 802.16e mobility standard. This should be very attractive to carriers deploying WiMAX base stations.

The picoChip devices are not inexpensive--they cost "a couple of hundred dollars" each. Base stations need a lot of processing power to handle multiple users simultaneously--the reference design for a 32 user UMTS FDD microcell base station requires four PC102 devices. But they simplify designing wireless base stations, and Rupert said "We are doing very well in design wins."

We're sure that picoChip is not the only company taking the "software radio" approach, but it's the first one we've looked at closely and we see its approach as the wave of the future. While picoChip is focused today on the power required for base stations, they or other companies will eventually apply the same approach to consumer wireless products. Rupert told us "the same architecture works fine in CPE" but needs only "10 to 30 processors" to support a single user rather than the thousand or so for a base station.

That suggests that in the not-too-distant future we'll see "software radios" built into consumer devices. They'll be able to talk with Wi-Fi inside the house or at a hot spot, with WiMAX wherever it's available, and with several versions of 3G everywhere else.

And pretty soon this will be built into every laptop and PDA.

( www.picochip.com )