The telecommunications industry is closely watching the development of a brand-new chip by imec spin-off Pharrowtech; a chip that can provide millions of families with an ultrafast broadband connection – easily, quickly and cost-effectively. Wim Van Thillo (CEO of Pharrowtech) and Olivier Rousseaux (senior venture development manager at imec) disclose the potential and unique features of the Pharrowtech chip and explain how the imec spin-off came about.
Broadband: just as essential as water, heating and electricity
Nowadays, who could even start to imagine a house without a broadband connection (and therefore without TV, internet or online game platforms)? In fact, broadband connectivity has become so commonplace in recent years that you only notice it if it is missing. As such, it is not surprising that broadband is often described as the fourth utility – alongside water, heating and electricity.
Various technologies exist to provide homes with broadband, each with their pros and cons:
- It is quite common to use the copper telephone cables that are already present in most houses and apartments. This solution – also known as digital subscriber line (DSL) technology – is very quick to install: after all, no new cables are required. But that is also the most significant drawback of DSL: since the technology uses relatively old cabling, it can only accommodate limited speeds – a few dozen megabits per second (Mbp/s). As such, DSL technology has started to hit a wall.
- Coaxial cables, used to roll out cable TV, are a very popular alternative. Just like telephone cables, they are typically present in existing houses – yet (in theory) support higher bandwidths. The main disadvantage of a cable network, however, is that the infrastructure is shared with all users in the neighborhood. In other words: the higher the number of cable subscribers in your area, the lower the bandwidth that is exclusively available to you.
To support ultrafast broadband – one gigabit per second (Gbp/s) and more – and to be ready for future applications such as virtual reality (VR), focus has recently shifted to fiber access. Its installation, however, requires the roll-out of a completely new network – making fiber access a very expensive and complex option. Let’s take Germany as an example: if you want to provide the 40+ million German families with a fiber-based connection, and you can effectively connect 10,000 homes every working day, you will still need 20+ years to cover the entire country. So, that’s not going to work either.
Fixed wireless access and Pharrowtech: the new kids on the block
That is where the ‘fixed wireless access’ concept comes in. The idea is to provide homes with extremely fast internet via a wireless connection – easily, quickly and cost-effectively,” says Wim Van Thillo, CEO of Pharrowtech. “Our fixed wireless access solution uses millimeter wave (mmWave) technology and operates in the unlicensed 60GHz frequency band.
“The main difference with the wireless communication technologies we use today – such as mobile internet, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth – is that those are limited to frequencies below 6GHz. Fixed wireless access networks based on 60GHz technology, however, support bandwidths that are ten times higher. As such, you can effectively deploy a wireless connection at the speed of fiber access.”
Moreover, this technology is easy to install: you only need to mount a box on a wall or the roof – in the line of sight of an antenna in your neighborhood. This means that you can easily provide whole districts with an ultrafast broadband connection within a matter of weeks, and without any major infrastructure works. That is the technology Pharrowtech is pursuing, states Van Thillo.
A world’s first
A speedy roll-out obviously requires the availability of a robust technology – and that is exactly where Pharrowtech comes in.
We are the first chip supplier to offer a carrier-grade 60GHz millimeter wave solution – based on CMOS process technology – for the fixed wireless access market, states Wim Van Thillo.
“Leveraging imec IP, we are building a chip that is fully aligned to the specific demands of this market. The chips must be robust enough to operate in extreme weather conditions, for example. Moreover, we can offer telecom vendors the support they need to offer their customers successful, integrated solutions. And – last but not least – our solution demonstrates a superior technical performance. This combination of factors makes Pharrowtech a unique player in this field.”
In 2020, Pharrowtech will focus on the chip’s development, lab tests and field trials. Volume production should be up and running in 2021.
Technology with a market potential of a few hundreds of millions of users
Pharrowtech not only pursues the fixed wireless access market. It also aims at accommodating the roll-out of wireless augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) applications.
“The numerous AR/VR applications and supporting wireless headsets that are being developed today typically rely on Wi-Fi. Yet, the Wi-Fi spectrum is rapidly clogging up – so here too, our 60GHz millimeter wave chip technology will help out,” says Wim Van Thillo.
A start-up aiming to bring products to market soon
One thing is certain, Pharrowtech is not lacking ambition.
“All our investors – imec.xpand, Bloc Ventures and the KBC Focus Fund – are venture capitalists that push for more than mere organic, linear growth. Hence, our ambition is to scale the team quickly and build an organization that is ready to build and support high-volume products within the next two years,” states Wim Van Thillo.