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IBM ready to ramp CMOS PAs in 3-5 years

Big Blue is teaming with leading RF companies on silicon CMOS for cellphone and WLAN front ends, and says that ambitious PA makers will determine when the technology will pose serious competition to GaAs.

CMOS 7RF SOI, IBM's silicon RF process technology, could allow production of a fully-integrated silicon power amplifier within 3-5 years.

That s according to Ken Torino, the computing giant s director of foundry products, prophesizing the where the process will head after its scheduled qualification in April 2008. The PA will not be part of the initial ramp, but could be added in the future.

Initially, Torino believes IBM will be applying the new process on behalf of top-tier RF companies seeking to integrate switching and power management in their front ends.

“We re pretty much working with the "˜who s-who' of the industry and it s in co-operation, not in opposition,” Torino explained.

According to IBM s current schedule, volume production using the new process will begin at its Burlington, Vermont, site in 2009.

Currently, handsets and wireless LAN (WLAN) are the major markets that single-chip CMOS 7RF SOI is being developed for.

“It might be introduced to wireless LAN first,” Torino commented, “only because it s easier, but everybody recognizes that the big win is the huge volumes of cellular phones.”

Likewise, with WLAN having more readily achievable specifications, it is also more likely to be the arena where CMOS PAs are first deployed, Torino believes.

“It depends how ambitious the people with power amp design expertise are to move into CMOS, but it would be possible to do it in 3-5 years.”

Towards a one-chip phone
The “7” part of the process name refers to IBM s 7th"“generation CMOS technology, which uses 0.18 ?m lithography, in comparison to 0.25 ?m or above currently used in RF GaAs.

IBM s expertise in silicon-on-insulator (SOI) manufacturing allows this higher density of chips per wafer, and makes it available to the RF industry.

“It s an easier technology to manufacture, it s lower cost, and with the SOI you can meet the specifications that hitherto only GaAs could do,” Torino said. “The specifications are very demanding and doing it in conventional CMOS is very challenging. It s desirable but it s challenging.”

Perhaps even further into the future, Torino believes that CMOS 7RF SOI could add the final piece of the puzzle and integrate the three major areas of electronics that can still be considered separately in today's mobile phones: baseband, transceiver and front-end.

“It s going to require all three disciplines to get that, nirvana, ultimate one-chip radio which really encompasses all of the function,” he said.

“What this technology really addresses is the front end, but because it's in a more conventional CMOS it does have the potential to ultimately integrate it all.”

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