$1 incremental cost for WiMAX CE devices?

I’ve spoken to a company that says it can add WiMAX capability to chipsets, in consumer electronic (CE) devices, for an incremental cost of around $1 per unit. If the company’s solution is added to a SoC (system-on-a-chip) and the existing CPU runs the MAC layer, then the incremental cost – so I’m told – can go as low as $0.20 (if the volumes are high enough).

I mentioned these cost claims to the business development manager at one of the more established WiMAX chipset suppliers (it’s been around for more than five years). He laughed heartily in disbelief for a good ten seconds before managing to splutter out, “Good luck to ‘em!” He hadn’t heard of the company.

I got a similar sceptical – no, make that cynical – response from a couple of other WiMAX chipset suppliers.

You don’t have to be a silicon engineer or software expert to spot a massive gulf between what this company claims and what is generally accepted as ‘doable’. Wavesat, for example, which is another long-standing chipset supplier (and which, it has to be said, didn’t laugh at this company), says it expects to supply a WiMAX chipset for the embedded CE device market at a price point of around $8 by 2010. Sub-$10 is generally considered an achievable target (I believe), but no way for $1 and certainly not $0.20. At least that’s what the ‘established’ WiMAX chipsets players have indicated.

But this company has a different business model from the WiMAX chipset suppliers. It doesn’t supply the chipset but rather it is an IP (intellectual property) semiconductor company that intends to licence its programmable architecture to CE chipset suppliers. The cost levels it quotes are not for the entire chip but for the cost of the additional silicon (used by the CE chipset suppliers) to carry the WiMAX functionality.

The name of this company for those who are not familiar with these claims (there was no need for me not to mention it earlier, other than to try and create some mystery and suspense) is Coresonic and is headquartered in Sweden.

I’ve got no brief for Coresonic, but if this company can do what it says it can, then it would be a massive boost for the WiMAX operator business case. By WiMAX-enabling a range of CE devices—such as digital cameras, MP3 players, gaming consoles and the like—without adding significantly to the cost of those devices, then a new and extremely large market could be opened up for WiMAX operators. It could also be a clear market differentiator from 3G plays.

Although Coresonic’s baseband architecture, dubbed LeoCore, is designed to support numerous standards, including 3G/HSPA and DVB-T/H, it is in the WiMAX-enabled CE device market where Rick Clucas, Coresonic CEO, sees one of the biggest opportunities. One reason for that, he says, is because baseband competition for CE chipsets is far less fierce than in the cellular chipset market where the ecosystem relationships—from mobile operators through to OEMs and ODMs—are much more entrenched. That’s why Clucas sees chipset makers for CE devices, rather than the WiMAX chipset makers, as his main addressable market.

The Swedish company makes what might appear to be a number of bold claims in its ‘LeoCore WiMAX Personality Pack’ literature. One is that the company’s complete mobile WiMAX solution (from the RF interface through to the central processor interface) can be implemented in a 65nm design using less than 1.5sq mm of additional silicon. But Coresonic reports that the cost of this additional silicon is actually very cheap. “Current figures from a semiconductor foundry in the Far East confirm that the cost of adding 2sq mm of silicon to a chip design is about $0.15 [depending on wafer volume and the number of masks],” says Clucas. “Coresonic has therefore been quite conservative in quoting $1 for an additional 1.5sq mm.”

Moreover, says Coresonic, mobile WiMAX (using MIMO) will only require a maximum clock speed of 250MHz to run on LeoCore, which, along with a ‘very small gate count’, translates to a power consumption of less than 50mW in a 65nm process. And if you factor in power management and real-life usage patterns – continues the Coresonic marketing pitch – then power consumption would be a fraction of this.

“The solution we are offering is so radically smaller and much more efficient than anything else available on the market that we have had potential customers coming up to us saying they didn’t believe it,” says Clucas. “That’s why we put a platform together to demonstrate it [at WiMAX World 2008, held in Chicago, September 2008].”

Coresonic has clearly got its doubters (and mockers), but it would have the last laugh if it could make good on its promises. And Clucas, unsurprisingly, expects the market to vindicate LeoCore sooner rather than later. “You might see chipsets [using LeoCore] by the end of 2009 with commercial products available in the 2010 timeframe,” he says.

Should the ‘traditional’ WiMAX chipset suppliers be worried? Looking at Coresonic and accepting its claims at face value, I would say yes. Having said that, I’m not a silicon engineer or software expert. It’s ultimately up to the CE chipset suppliers to decide.

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