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Wireless SoCs Solve Connectivity Challenges

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Wireless systems-on-chip (SoCs) are favored by IoT system designers for their high functionality, low power consumption and space savings. These devices are comprised of a number of key components, including the processors, radios, power management, memory, interfaces and peripherals.

One of the biggest drivers in wireless SoCs is the growing need for multi-protocol support to meet the requirements of different IoT devices. Chipmakers need to keep up with existing standards that continue to evolve as well as new wireless standards. These include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth LE, Bluetooth classic, 802.15.4, ZigBee, Thread, Z-Wave, Matter, cellular and other proprietary wireless protocols.

Through this integration and multi-protocol support, wireless SoCs are solving some of the biggest technical challenges around wireless design while simplifying development by providing all of the necessary functionality, along with the connectivity and security in one device. But designers aren’t on their own; SoC makers also provide complete ecosystems and reference designs that can lower design risk and shorten the design cycle.

“A wireless SoC typically comprises the radio itself—one or more, depending on the application—a MAC/PHY for the Wi-Fi and PHY for Bluetooth, along with a power management unit, memory, various I/O ports, a debug port, possibly an analog-to-digital converter and bus management IP,” said Brandon Bae, senior director of product marketing for wireless connectivity at Synaptics Incorporated. “Interfaces for external power amplifier and low-noise amplifier options, with associated switches, are also good to have.”

Brandon Bae, senior director, product marketing, wireless connectivity at Synaptics Incorporated.
Brandon Bae (Source: Synaptics Incorporated)

Depending on the protocols supported and the end applications, the components in a wireless SoC could be different, said Dhiraj Sogani, senior director of wireless product marketing at Silicon Labs. “Power optimization, longer range, robust connectivity, higher processing power, more peripherals and higher memory will continue to be the driving trends in wireless SoCs, and we will see continuous improvement in these.”

Wireless SoCs are also packed with security features, making them suited for a range of embedded IoT systems, such as smart homes, smart metering, building automation and fitness devices.

“Security is increasingly a concern to protect personal data and to protect IP, and many SoCs are adding features to address security at multiple hardware and software levels,” said Nathalie Vallespin, wireless product line marketing manager at STMicroelectronics.

Highly integrated wireless SoCs

As demand grows for wireless SoCs, chipmakers continue to meet requirements for better security and greater interoperability and are adding advanced features for sensors, graphics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. There is also a drive toward multi-protocol connectivity support with options for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, LoRa, Zigbee, Matter and other protocols.

“There is always a requirement for a higher level of integration in the wireless SoCs to meet the application use cases, simplify IoT device development and reduce cost,” Sogani said.

One of the key areas is a higher level of hardware and software integration, which includes the integrated applications processor, integrated networking stacks, cloud connectivity, digital and analog peripherals, additional GPIOs and higher memory, along with support for new protocols like Matter, Amazon Sidewalk and Wi-SUN, he added.

“Integration of multiple protocols is becoming critical,” Sogani said. These include the combinations of Wi-Fi and BLE and 802.15.4 and BLE, as well as Wi-Fi, BLE, 802.15.4 and even sub-gigahertz integration.

“Bluetooth classic integration is also needed to support legacy headsets,” he added. “These protocols need to operate concurrently, which needs significant hardware and software work.”

Dhiraj Sogani, senior director, wireless product marketing, at Silicon Labs.
Dhiraj Sogani (Source: Silicon Labs)

In addition, “Matter over Thread and Matter over Wi-Fi is gaining significant momentum, as it enables interoperability of different ecosystems, such as Google, Amazon and Samsung,” Sogani said. “Wi-SUN is becoming more critical for smart-city deployments. Amazon Sidewalk shows significant promise to become a leading protocol for neighborhood connectivity.”

Vallespin noted that the evolution in standards is also enabling new use cases: “In Bluetooth Low Energy, audio is creating many new use cases to manage new user experiences and is replacing the Bluetooth classic technology. Matter technology, just announced late last year, is a new standard for connected-home applications, and ultra-wideband is increasingly being used for car access control.”

STMicroelectronics offers a wireless roadmap based on its popular STM32 family of microcontrollers and ecosystem. These include the STM32WB series for Bluetooth LE, Thread, Matter and Zigbee and the STM32WL for LoRa and other sub-gigahertz protocols. “STM32 wireless products add best-in-class IPs to smoothly migrate to wireless platforms,” Vallespin said.

Sogani noted two other key trends, including the integration of machine learning for IoT edge devices for simple audio, vision and data applications like keyword spotting, motion detection and glass-break detection, as well as security integration at the hardware and software level for improving IoT device security.

Synaptics’ Bae agreed that there is a higher degree of integration coming: “We’re looking at advancing to finer nodes to not only shrink the die size, but it also frees up space to integrate more memory for more features for a given package size. The drivers tend to be functionality, size, power and cost, so if we can provide greater functionality for a given footprint while also improving power consumption, our customers like that.

“It’s not always good to move to a smaller package, even when that’s possible, as that requires board redesigns,” Bae said. “More functionality is often preferred.”

Similarly, Vallespin said the process node is a key factor in delivering new degrees of integration. “Smaller geometries allow greater integration.”

Latest advances

Wireless SoC vendors agreed that new product development is driven by wireless standards and the need for higher functionality, more integration and lower power consumption.

For example, Silicon Labs’ wireless SoC roadmap focuses on “intelligent wireless connectivity for IoT devices.” The company offers a wide range of wireless solutions, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 802.15.4, ZigBee, Thread, Z-Wave and proprietary wireless.

Silicon Labs’ latest advances include its 2.4-GHz wireless MG24 SoC for Bluetooth and multiple-protocol operations. The MG24 supports Matter over Thread as a single-chip solution—with a range of up to 200 meters indoors for OpenThread—while also enabling Bluetooth commissioning of new devices on the same chip, Sogani said. “The MG24, combined with the ultra-low–power Silicon Labs RS9116 or Silicon Labs WF200 Wi-Fi products, enables development of Matter over Wi-Fi 4.”

Silicon Labs also offers the FG25, the company’s new flagship SoC for Wi-SUN, which is one of the world’s first open protocols for smart-city and smart-utility applications. “The EFF01 is the FG25’s corresponding amplifier that boosts signal range by 2× when used together,” Sogani said.

He said the FG25 “will be the world’s most secure smart-city solution, with long range, the largest memory capacity of any SoC in the Silicon Labs portfolio and the ability to operate for up to 10 years on a coin-cell battery.”

In addition, Silicon Labs’ first Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth LE SoC, the fully integrated SiWx917, is designed to be the lowest-power Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth LE SoC in the industry, Sogani said. “The SiWx917 is a single-chip solution that is Matter-ready, includes an integrated applications processor and offers industry-leading energy efficiency, making it ideal for battery-powered or energy-efficient IoT devices with always-on cloud connectivity.”

Synaptics is focusing on two major industry trends: connecting sensors that are gathering data to the AI systems or devices that are doing the analysis, and making wireless devices easier to use, Bae said.

“First, we’re simplifying the integration of AI and wireless through KatanaConnect, which combines our Katana low-power edge AI SoC with our SYN430132 1 × 1 Wi-Fi/Bluetooth combo chip on a tiny module measuring 32 × 32 mm,” he said. “Second, our mix of Bluetooth, ULE, Wi-Fi, 802.15.4 and GNSS solutions is unique in the industry. They are proven solutions that simplify the cost-effective and rapid development of IoT connectivity devices. This has clear single-source benefits of both product and design expertise, so we know how to connect IoT devices.”

However, Bae said there is more to it than having the silicon and track record. “We’re also either already Matter-compliant or are working on it across all our solution stacks so we can ensure users benefit from Matter’s promise of a seamless user experience across platforms and interfaces.”

A good example of Synaptics’ Matter support and high integration is the SYN4381 Triple Combo SoC, which the company claims as the first to combine Wi-Fi 6/6E (802.11ax with extended 6-GHz operation), Bluetooth 5.2 (BT 5.2) with BLE audio and high-accuracy distance measurement, and IEEE 802.15.4 with built-in support for the Thread protocol and Matter application layer. The SoC and its SynFi software simplify product development by providing secure and scalable connectivity between devices across heterogeneous IoT networks, regardless of platform, OEM or brand, the company said. For end users, they get a simplified setup and seamless control across their smart-home devices.

Key differentiators for Synaptics include its robust connectivity and the ability to balance cost and performance, Bae said. “For example, while many offer Wi-Fi/Bluetooth combo solutions, they haven’t fully controlled the signaling, and that shows up as glitches in both audio and video.”

To solve the problem, Synaptics has developed a proprietary mechanism, which it calls Smart Coexistence, in the 2.45-GHz band. It “carefully manages the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth transmission and reception to avoid lost packets and the inefficiencies of retransmissions,” Bae said.

Bae added it is baked into all of its combo chips, including the SYN4381 Triple Combo, as well as the SYN43756 Bluetooth/Wi-Fi combo chip and the SYN43756, a single-chip IEEE 802.11ax 2 × 2 MAC/baseband/radio with integrated Bluetooth 5.2 (with LE Audio).

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