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All over the world, and most recently in the United States, cellular companies have been upgrading their networks, moving from so-called second-generation, or 2G, technology to 3G systems that can deliver vastly more data at faster rates. Throw in the growing number of Wi-Fi connections, and mobile phones, PDAs, and other devices must contend with a tangle of networks speaking different languages at different frequencies. Since most wireless devices can handle only one of these languages and are permanently tuned to particular frequency ranges, they’re unable to communicate outside limited geographic areas.

But a University of Waterloo, Ontario, startup called Sirific Wireless is developing a new chip that will enable wireless devices to use four wireless standards and tune to different frequency ranges. Such devices would be able to hop between networks looking for the fastest available data connections, regardless of location.

At the heart of any wireless device is the transceiver, which converts a radio signal to an electronic one and vice versa. Device makers have recently begun making mobile phones and PDAs that work on two different types of networks by equipping them with separate transceivers for each, an approach that adds bulk and cost. Sirific’s newly designed transceiver can handle signals from the most common 2G cellular networks, enhanced second-generation networks dubbed 2.5G, 3G systems now being deployed around the world, and Wi-Fi, all on one chip.

What’s more, the chip can be made using the industry-standard manufacturing process called CMOS (for complementary metal oxide semiconductor). “Anything you can get in CMOS you can make better, cheaper, more efficient at a much faster innovation rate,” says Michael Hogan, Sirific’s president and CEO. Most transceiver chips in today’s cell phones are made using more-expensive specialty manufacturing techniques; Sirific estimates that the switch to CMOS could lower chip production costs by 30 percent.

This spring, Sirific raised $17 million in its third round of venture financing. The four-year-old company, which is based on research that founder Tajinder Manku began in 1996 as an electrical-and computer engineering professor at the University of Waterloo, has built a prototype wireless data card that includes its chip and other important radio components and has demonstrated it for several potential customers. One customer is building Sirific’s technology into its product, a wireless module that would go inside laptops and PDAs. Hogan expects that, if all goes well, this product will hit the market by the first half of next year.

But the real prize for the company would be the nearly $3.5 billion global market for mobile-phone transceivers. Hogan hopes to have a chip ready for that market by early 2006.

Sirific will face plenty of competition, since most of the major radio chip makers, such as Texas Instruments and Qualcomm, plan to develop similar multimode products, says Stan Bruederle, research vice president at Gartner Semiconductor Research.

Still, with more than half a billion mobile phones sold worldwide this year – a number that is projected to rise steadily over the coming years – Sirific has a huge and burgeoning market to cash in on.

DESIGNERS OF NEXT-GENERATION RADIO CHIPS

COMPANY

TECHNOLOGY

Infineon Technologies
(Munich, Germany)

Single-chip CMOS transceiver for 2G/2.5G handsets; shipped to first customer in July

Berkna Wireless
(Campbell, CA)

Single-chip CMOS transceiver for 2G/2.5G handsets and wireless modems

Silicon Laboratories
(Austin, TX)

Single-chip CMOS transceiver for 2G/2.5G handsets and wireless modems

Quorum Systems
(San Diego, CA)

Single-chip transceiver for Wi-Fi and 2G/2.5G voice and data communications

Ashvattha Semiconductor
(San Diego, CA)

CMOS transceiver chip for handsets that can handle 2G/2.5G, Bluetooth, and GPS

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