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Qualcomm buys into MIMO wireless technology

Mobile chip specialist acquires former rival and MIMO pioneer Airgo
Written by David Meyer, Contributor on

Qualcomm has acquired a key player in the next era of wireless connectivity, MIMO pioneer Airgo.

MIMO — multiple input / multiple output — is central to upcoming technologies such as mobile WiMax and the 802.11n Wi-Fi standard, as well as the long-term evolution (LTE) of 3G technology.

The chipmaker said on Monday that its upcoming Snapdragon multimedia platform and Mobile Station Modem chipsets would benefit from the Airgo purchase, as well as that of the Bluetooth business unit of RF Micro Devices (RFMD) — also announced on Monday.

Airgo once held a prominent position in the World Wide Spectrum Efficiency (WWiSE) faction, alongside Motorola, lobbying for its version of 802.11n — Qualcomm was allied with Intel. However, the sides agreed to merge their proposals in 2005, thus creating a first draft for the next-generation Wi-Fi technology.

While the standard should be fully ratified by the end of 2007, a second draft — which should help assure customers that different manufacturers' 802.11n-based equipment will be interoperable — is due in March 2007. However, Qualcomm also announced on Monday that it was making available the "world's first 802.11n draft 2.0 chipset", raising the question of how it can claim to do so before the terms of the draft are even agreed.

"We know what is in the content and are in a position to prove what can be delivered under this draft," said Enrico Salvatori, vice president and general manager of Qualcomm CDMA Technologies, while adding that Qualcomm knew it was not the only player "targeting" the specifications.

Salvatori described Airgo as "a good fit", as its purchase would enable Qualcomm to support a reference design without using third-party components, thus making the design "less risky in terms of the finalisation of the standard".

Ovum analyst Julien Grivolas told ZDNet UK that Airgo was a "key innovator" in MIMO, a technology which will be increasingly used in the wireless industry. He also suggested that the Airgo purchase will give Qualcomm something of a stake in a technology that it has until now treated as a rival — mobile WiMax.

"My reaction [to the announcement] was to make a link with Qualcomm's acquisition of Flarion one-and-a-half years ago," said Grivolas, pointing out that the Flarion purchase brought with it patents in OFDM (orthagonal frequency-division multiplexing) technology. "When you combine OFDM and MIMO, this is going to be part of the next-generational wireless technology. [These are] two pillars of LTE and mobile WiMax. Qualcomm has not been a big fan of mobile WiMax up to now, but if they can be able to grab royalties thanks to patents then they will go for it".

Salvatori denied that Qualcomm would invest in mobile WiMax, saying its roadmap was "aligned with 3GPP evolution" and claiming "the evolution of HSPA [high-speed 3G] and LTE are delivering performances and quality of service that are requested by the operators". He also denied a suggestion that Qualcomm could use the patents to hinder the development of mobile WiMax, insisting that Qualcomm's approach to the market was "positive not negative".

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