Wireless Systems Design

Converging Markets Nourish RFIC And RF-Design Growth

As new applications deliver RFIC opportunities great and small, electronic-design-automation companies are making more tools and solutions available for this space.

The wireless space has become virtually overrun with radio-frequency integrated circuits (RFICs). This trend is largely responsible for the shrinking sizes and continued power conservation of today's wireless devices. According to the venture-capital firm, 3i (www.3ius.com), the impact of RFICs on the consumer market will only increase. It predicts that the consumer market will actually drive the future growth of RFICs. 3i is attributing that growth to the convergence of information technology (IT), entertainment, and communications.

As that evolution takes place, the electronic-design-automation (EDA) companies that support RFIC development also will be forced to adapt. This article will list some of the RFIC companies that dominate today's landscape along with the design-tool companies that assist them. It also will reveal some of these companies' designer resources, which may serve as a starting point for engineers who are new to this space.

Obviously, some big industry names play in the RFIC space: Texas Instruments (www.ti.com), Toshiba (www.toshiba.com), and NEC (www.nec.com). Other familiar names include On Semiconductor (www.onsemi.com), GCT Semiconductor (www.gctsemi.com), and RF Solutions (www.rfsolutions.com). Of course, the company that may be most commonly associated with RFICs is RF Micro Devices (www.rfmd.com). Like the previously mentioned companies, RFMD's web site provides in-depth product information. Under the Optimum Technology Matching (OTM) Strategy section, however, the company also gives a rundown of different process technologies and the components with which they're compatible.

RFMD is now in the process of acquiring Silicon Wave (www.siliconwave.com), which designs and develops Bluetooth systems-on-a-chip (SoCs). Currently, Silicon Wave's web site offers datasheets and documentation on issues like 802.11 co-existence, power-consumption estimates for Bluetooth, and more.

Under the application area on Triquint Semiconductor's site (www.triquint.com), it's possible to download brochures on the following categories: wireless phones, base stations, broadband and microwave, and space and defense. This company designs, develops, and manufactures high-performance gallium-arsenide (GaAs) integrated circuits and transistors.

Agere Systems (www.agere.com) provides advanced integrated-circuit solutions for wireless-data, high-density-storage, and multiservice-networking applications. Under the Documentation Library on its web site, the company houses white papers, contributed articles, presentations, and more.

Singapore's Advanced RFIC Ptd. Ltd. (www.arfic.com) specializes in the field of RFIC design, semiconductor-device characterization, and modeling. This company offers device characterization, device-modeling/test chip-design services, an RFIC foundry design kit, RFIC IP integration and technology licensing, and RFIC turnkey projects. By logging onto the company's web site, customers can gain access to product information, technical support, frequently asked questions (FAQs), and discussion groups.

Recently, a lot of attention has been focused on the smaller companies in the RFIC space. According to 3i, a growing number of smaller, specialized companies are taking advantage of numerous market opportunities. SiGe Semiconductor (www.sige.com), for example, designs RFICs and chip-scale front-end modules that enable high-performance wireless in home and small-office equipment, mobile-computing devices, and personal communications systems. The company also boasts helpful resources both on- and offline: datasheets and application notes; evaluation kits for several product lines; and additional materials like IP-encoded models for design simulation and physical-layout files for product-layout support.

Another smaller innovator is Discera (www.discera.com). It supplies miniaturized standalone electronic components as well as complete semiconductor IP solutions for the design and manufacture of highly integrated, cost-effective RFICs. In addition, Betheltronix, Inc. (www.betheltronix.com) makes RFICs that target the ISM band, GSM digital-cellular applications, and Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers.

Keep in mind that this list of RFIC manufacturers isn't complete. If anything, this market segment is even more complex than it looks in this article. For RF-design companies, such diversity poses quite a dilemma. After all, they want their products and services to appeal to most of this hodgepodge of IC makers. A list follows of some electronic-design-automation (EDA) companies that are rising to this challenge. It also describes some of the resources and support that they offer. (Note that for online resources, many sites require users to either log in or have existing membership.)

  • Agilent EEsof (http://eesof.tm.agilent.com) - This EDA company's RF Design Environment performs large-scale RF/mixed-signal IC design in the Cadence environment. The web site offers designers support documents, examples, software downloads, defect reports, FAQs, demos, discussion forums, and more.
  • Xpedion (www.xpedion.com) - This company provides analysis and verification solutions for wireless and high-speed system-on-a-chip IC designers. Its site houses white papers, datasheets, and FAQs.
  • APLAC Solutions (www.aplac.com) - APLAC makes electronic-design and analysis tools for radio-frequency and analog engineers. Among other offerings, its site contains downloads, an installation manual, and release notes.
  • Applied Wave Research (www.mwoffice.com) - AWR supplies high-frequency EDA products for the design of wireless telecommunications equipment, semiconductors, networking systems, and a variety of other products. The web site includes product downloads, license-purchasing assistance, and documentation. In addition, the "Knowledge Base" contains application notes, tutorials, examples, and FAQs.
  • Ansoft (www.ansoft.com) - This company's simulation software promises to streamline the design of electronic products. Ansoft offers many online and in-person benefits to its customers. To name just a few, they are events and training, online technical support, and installation support.
  • Forte Design Systems (www.fortedesignsystems.com) - Forte's behavioral-synthesis technology vows to help design teams significantly reduce their overall design and verification time. Its Web Learning Center (WLC) provides product downloads, a searchable knowledge base, tutorials and training information, FAQs, and user manuals.

The EDA companies mentioned here have all created products for the RF domain. Yet more companies do exist and even more will enter this space. As new applications emerge, the current lineup of RFIC makers also may shift. Colin Macnab, VP of Marketing and Business Development at Atheros Communications (www.atheros.com)—maker of WLAN chip sets—shares his view of near-future applications: "This year and next will be big for voice-over-Wi-Fi. Another big thing for 2004 to 2005 is the arrival of standards-based QoS for voice calls and video streaming. Additionally, the wirelessly connected home will be huge for at least the next decade...Watch for 802.11a/g to take off for wireless-entertainment home networking." It seems that the industry may be coming to a consensus: A convergence of IT, entertainment, and communications will pave the way for future RFICs. Luckily, RF-design companies will be there to streamline their creation and get them to market on time.

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