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Full speed ahead for IBM transistor

Big Blue on Monday will debut a 350GHz transistor for wireless chips that promises enough power to build future networks to change how people use PCs and electronics.

IBM on Monday will unveil a new transistor design for wireless chips that promises enough power to build future networks that will change the way people use wireless at work and at home.

The new transistor design, based on its silicon germanium, or SiGe, chipmaking technology, delivers a threefold increase in speed. The company's microelectronics division will detail the design at the International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM) in San Francisco in December.

The new IBM transistor, which runs at 350GHz, will result in communications chips that run at roughly 150GHz and will be able to send data at rates of hundreds of gigabits per second. That's enough juice to send high-quality video from a set-top to a high-definition screen, an IBM representative said.

These chips will be about four to five times faster in clock speed than today's fastest communications chips used in wireless LANs (local area networks) and home networks and will consume about a 10th of the power, the representative said.

A transistor is essentially an on-off switch for transmitting signals. Millions of them are weaved together in circuits, which make up chips. SiGe technology embeds germanium atoms at various places into the silicon crystal that makes up a transistor. The addition of the atoms improves the flow of electricity through a transistor, which increases performance or can be used to decrease power consumption.

Resulting SiGe chips are otherwise the same as standard silicon chips and are therefore relatively inexpensive to make in large volumes.

The new 350GHz transistor will work its way into chips by 2005 to 2006, according to IBM. Big Blue's 210GHz transistor was revealed in June 2001, and chips based on that device are expected to hit the market late next year or early 2004.

SiGe with a twist
The 350GHz transistor uses SiGe, but with a twist. A new structure, which IBM will detail at the conference, increases performance, an IBM representative said.

The development of the new transistor "is rather exciting for us in terms of both hitting this performance point and in the fact that we believe this...structure is scalable in the future," said Ron Soicher, director of business development for IBM's Technology Group.

Future home networks that transmit more data at faster rates are a potential application for chips based on the new transistor.

These networks, which would be available for businesses as well, would have the bandwidth to transmit high-quality video, such as uncompressed HDTV (high-definition television) or graphics for television and games. A person could watch a movie on a remote screen or play an online video game from a remote console, for example, even if a computer is located in a living room or a den, Soicher said.

It's a concept that's already catching on. Both Sharp and JVC have demonstrated products that create a wireless link between set-tops and high-definition displays.

Such future chips could also be used with automotive anticollision radar or in dual-purpose cellular phones that connect to both WANs (wide area networks) and the new high-bandwidth LANs, Soicher said.

Indeed, analysts say IBM's transistor gives it an edge in wireless communications equipment.

At this stage, Intel--one of Big Blue's biggest competitors--appears to be focused on lower bandwidth applications, said Richard Doherty, an analyst with Envisioneering.

But while IBM may have won this match, the game's not over, Doherty said. He expects Intel, Fujitsu and other chipmakers to respond and likely create similar transistors over time.

IBM acknowledges that its transistors and chips have several competitors. But the company feels confident its SiGe chips driven by 350GHz transistor designs can compete.

"IBM is continuing to pull ahead in the SiGe arena. We're getting innovations at a very fast pace," Soicher said.