Intel unveils 90nm wireless transceiver

Intel has achieved a major step toward applying the power of Moore's Law to radio technology, building a working radio chip that packs in transistors as tightly as today's most advanced production chips, the company announced Friday.

The prototype of an IEEE 802.11a wireless LAN transceiver was created using a 90-nanometer CMOS (Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor) process, the same used in many of Intel's Pentium 4 microprocessors. That's a leap of two generations ahead of most current CMOS radio chips, which typically are built at 180 nanometers, according to Krishnamurthy Soumyanath, director of the communications circuits lab at Intel's Corporate Technology Group. Process technologies are named for the average size of the structures on a chip. As those spaces get smaller, processors generally get smaller, faster and less power-hungry.

Most transceiver chip makers are moving to CMOS, but Intel is probably the first to do it at 90nm, said Will Strauss, principal analyst at Forward Concepts.

"The advantage of 90-nanometer is that they will be able to manufacture more of them cheaper," Strauss said. However, getting from prototype to mass-production chip won't be easy, he added. Intel's Soumyanath said the chip is a research project and did not predict when such a chip might be available in production volume.

The research is aimed at making cognitive radios, which can use radio spectrum "opportunistically," detecting what kinds of wireless networks are available nearby and shifting to the frequency that the most appropriate network uses, Soumyanath said. The prototype chip can be designed to go to any spectrum below 10GHz, using a digitally calibrated synthesizer to lock on precisely, he said. Cognitive radios are part of an Intel mobile vision for 2010 that includes notebooks and advanced phones that connect to the best possible network depending on the environment, he said.

Though such a chip theoretically could support many different kinds of wireless networks, a "cost-effective, sensible solution" probably would be built to do just two, Soumyanath noted. Using 90-nanometer CMOS can help make the chip and the mobile device smaller, less expensive and more powerful, a set of advantages that will only grow along with advances in Moore's Law, he said. Moore's Law, originally stated by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, predicts that the number of transistors on a computer chip will double every two years.

The prototype, shown at the Intel Mobility & Wireless Press Day in California combines a CMOS digital processing core with analog elements in a single package. It translates the analog signals sent and received over radio waves into digital signals. Intel shrunk the total package by using smaller -- and therefore less effective -- analog elements and making up for their limitations with digital processing, explained Ben Manny, director of the radio communications lab in Intel's Corporate Technology Group. Intel researchers hope that future process technologies will allow them to shrink the analog elements even further by providing greater processing power to take up the slack, he said.

Demand is already forming for radios that can communicate with a variety of networks, such as a Motorola Inc. mobile phone announced last week that lets users switch from a wireless LAN in the office to a cell network outside, Strauss said, and he expects this market to grow.

"If Intel has a more cost-effective solution, then they'll get some attention," Strauss said.

In the market for "mixed-signal" analog-digital radio chips, Intel is trying to catch up with more successful competitors such as Texas Instruments, STMicroelectronics and Analog Devices, Strauss said. In the past year the company has acquired wireless chipset makers Envara. But though it is far behind competitors, Intel could dominate the field because its Centrino notebook platform is a major destination of wireless chips, Strauss said.