Wireless Infrastructure

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Airgo(ne) to Qualcomm

Qualcomm's acquisition of Airgo Networks may seem a bit odd, but an examination of Airgo's technology and how it intersects with Qualcomm's products lines and existing and developing standards suggest a well-planned strategy and execution.

Qualcomm announced last week its purchase of two companies, RF Micro Devices for its Bluetooth and Airgo Networks for its pre-802.11n chipsets and intellectual property surrounding MIMO. Although both companies have received little attention in the enterprise, if Qualcomm has its way, Airgo's technology would find its way into every handset and laptop.

Airgo, a Silicon Valley company, developed a technology it coined MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) that leverages multipath to produce a Wi-Fi product offering higher performance and greater coverage than what was previously possible. Multipath describes the physical reality that not all the electromagnetic signals propagating from a transmitting antenna arrive at the receiving antenna at the same time. Some may take multiple paths before arriving. A simple rubber-duck antenna, for example, emanates a signal in the shape of a donut. Although some of the signal may go directly toward the receiver, some of it may bounce off walls or other hard objects before arriving at the receiver. Because all RF travels at the same speed, those signals traveling a longer distance take longer to arrive. This normally reduces signal quality, but by using multiple antennas it's possible to exploit the multipath to improve throughput. By simultaneously sending different signals over each radio-antenna chain and de-coupling them at the receiver, it's possible to increase throughput and, because of signal processing gain, distance. MIMO forms a key part of the developing IEEE 802.11n standard, which raises throughput rates above 100 Mbps. Airgo has forged relationships with several of the leading consumer Wi-Fi vendors, developed several generations of chipsets, and just announced its fourth-generation chipset, the AGN400.

MIMO is, without question, a major building block in several wireless technologies. Although Airgo has several dozen patents pending that hasn't prevented Atheros, Broadcom and Marvell from building their own MIMO-enabled chipsets, offering similar claims of performance and coverage. Besides the WLAN chipset vendors, Motorola has entered the MIMO space by acquiring Orthogon Systems, maker of point-to-point wireless systems. Nortel has aggressively marketed its mobile MIMO-powered WiMAX solution that is positioned to outperform competitive products in terms of coverage, spectral efficiency and, of course, throughput. Motorola emphasizes the "diversity" capability of its WiMAX products. Ericsson has demonstrated MIMO support in its HSPA (High Speed Packet Access), which combines HSDPA in the downlink and Enhanced Uplink in the uplink, both of which are specified in the 3GPP Release 5/6. Future standards on the 3GPP road map, HSPA+ (HSPA Evolution) and LTE (Long Term Evolution), specify MIMO as a key feature. Based on this laundry list of acronyms you should recognize that MIMO be a significant part of WLANs, WiMAX and cellular products.

Qualcomm was founded to provide a strongly competitive alternative to GSM. When it developed CDMA and some of the surrounding technologies, it began licensing its intellectual property to the likes of Nokia and Broadcom for a significant portion of the BOM (bill of materials). Fiscal fourth quarter 2006 results show licensing and royalty revenue to have contributed a consistent 36.5% of both last quarter and last year's revenue. There has been some resistance by mobile phone manufacturers to continue paying royalties of approximately 4% to 5% for 3G products that don't contain nearly the same percentage of Qualcomm intellectual property and patents that its 2G products had. If licensing rates were reduced to levels that Nokia and other mobile device manufacturers would consider "reasonable and non-discriminatory," Qualcomm's revenue stream could experience a substantial hit.

Although Qualcomm would not likely admit to it, diversifying to other wireless technologies is a way to hedge its bets as well as to establish and extend other licensing and royalty strongholds. Qualcomm has plans to use its MediaFLO technology to deliver video to mobile devices, nationwide, at the 700-MHz frequencies. Qualcomm has licensed spectrum across the United States and signed up a key tenant, Verizon Wireless. In January 2006, Qualcomm completed the acquisition of Flarion Technologies, one of the admittedly more successful mobile broadband data vendors, both for its product lines and technology, and its intellectual property and patents on OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplex Access), a key component to Mobile WiMAX.

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