Qualcomm set to pounce on WiGig pioneer Wilocity

Reported $300m acquisition would help the US firm stay at the cutting edge in devices, and also get closer to Cisco in small cells

By Caroline Gabriel

Ever-higher frequency bands are a key theme in boosting mobile performance, and as it seeks to remain the pace-setter in device and small cell evolution, Qualcomm is taking a keen interest in WiGig, which promises to add multi-gigabit speeds in unlicensed 60GHz spectrum. The US chip firm is reported to be on the point of buying Israeli 60GHz processor pioneer Wilocity for about $300m, a deal which could give it a headstart in multimode, ultra-high speed devices, and even closer ties to Cisco in enterprise small cells.

Israeli media reports broke the news that Qualcomm was supposedly close to completing a deal to buy Wilocity, which was founded in 2007 by former engineers from Intel's Centrino WiFi group and was the first company to deliver commercial silicon supporting preliminary drafts of the 802.11ad standard, branded as WiGig. This extension to the 802.11 family of specifications is WiFi-compatible and achieves multi-gigabit speeds (up to 7Gbps in theory) by harnessing the high capacity of the 60GHz licence-exempt band.

The short-range technology has initially appeared mainly in peripheral connectivity applications like Wireless USB but its main potential is seen in home video networks, enterprise or even hotspot systems, and multimedia mobile devices. Its limitations in range mean it will often appear in triband combinations alongside 2.4GHz/5GHz 802.11ac radios, or will be targeted at short-distance applications such as smartphone/TV data transfer.

Qualcomm cast off its long-standing hostility to unlicensed wireless technologies when it acquired Airgo and then Atheros, the two firms which contributed most to the 802.11n generation of fast WiFi. Now it could take a similarly powerful position - in terms of standards influence and IPR - in 802.11ad. But this is not one of the acquisitions where Qualcomm mainly gains expertise and patents - Wilocity has actual commercial silicon, which could help its putative new owner be first-to-market with mainstream 11ad/WiFi/cellular combinations for devices or small cells.

Wilocity shipped its first commercial silicon in December 2012, and says it has shipped more than a million chipsets to PC manufacturers, with Dell the most high profile customer. In February, the start-up announced its first smartphone product, the Wil6300 chipset , which delivers speeds of up to 4.6Gbps at low power (200mW-300mW).

Wilocity has so far raised about $105m from venture capital funds such as Benchmark, Sequoia and Tallwood, as well as an impressive range of strategic investors, including Qualcomm itself and Marvell. Perhaps most interestingly, in November it announced that Cisco had taken a minority stake of undisclosed size, and that it was collaborating with the networking leader on proof-of-concept trials for small cells that integrated 3G/LTE with 11ad, particularly for enterprise applications such as video communications.

At the time, Cisco's Bob Friday, CTO of the enterprise networking group, stated: "11ad and LTE will start to merge next year". Cisco is investing heavily in small cells via its acquisitions of Ubiquisys and Intucell, and its Wi-Fi activities. The mutual interest in Wilocity is another signal of its increasingly strategic cooperation with Qualcomm in this area. It will be using Qualcomm's small cell silicon and an expanded order from Cisco would be a good reason for the San Diego firm to sharpen its focus on integrated cellular/WiFi cell platforms, especially for the enterprise.

Tal Tamir, Wilocity's co-founder and CEO, sees triband products enabling hotspots of very localized capacity within broader enterprise networks, perhaps to serve meeting rooms; to improve wireless coverage and speed in public areas such as stadiums; and to offload data from wireline or cellular networks for specialized, localized functions such as medical imaging.

Initially a competitive effort to very high speed efforts within the main 802.11 groups, the 60GHz technology gradually came closer to the WLAN mainstream as the 802.11ad specifications matured, and its organization was finally merged with the Wi-Fi Alliance, which kicked off a certification program in September (though still retaining some separation by keeping the distinct WiGig name and logo).

Now it is widely seen as complementary to the other new high speed standard, 802.11ac, which runs in conventional 5GHz Wi-Fi spectrum and can achieve speeds of over 300Mbps using MIMO and wide bands (and theoretically get up to 1Gbps).

As well as Qualcomm, other key members of the WiGig Alliance include Nokia, Samsung and Nvidia.

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