The Amazing Chip
By John Corrigan, Senior Vice President of Mobile Satellite Engineering
At Hughes, not only are we the world’s leading provider of broadband satellite solutions and services, but we also design the key components and systems that make these possible. Few pieces of technology are as critical to our success as the integrated circuit, or “chip.” This tiny, complex device sits inside every one of our products and makes it do what it does. It’s amazing to realize that when we develop our own custom integrated circuits, we’re packing literally hundreds of person-years of technology and market know-how into something smaller than a postage stamp and costing just a few dollars or less. This ability to create devices with ever-greater functionality and lower cost, that are ever smaller and consume less power, is what ultimately gives us our competitive advantage in the marketplace.
System on Chip
Ten years ago, we developed our first System-on-Chip (SoC), nicknamed Gemini, for the mobile satellite phone market. By incorporating all of the required processors, memory, and logic circuits into a single mass-produced device, this custom SoC enabled a dramatic improvement in the performance and portability of our first mobile satellite handset. Fast forward to today’s latest Oberon chip, which will enable a new generation of satellite-enabled smart phones, and the improvements have been dramatic. As shown in the table below, the new chip yields more than seven times greater complexity at 20 percent of the power and 25 percent of the cost, with 28 times greater MIPS (millions of instructions per second) per watt of power.
This integrated capability to develop SoCs, making use of both our satellite systems know-how and our advanced chip design skills, is one of our core strengths. At Hughes, we don’t just build chips—we build systems on chips that enable broadband communications around the globe.
The Right Chip for the Job
At the heart of every Hughes product line lies a custom chip. So how do we know which chip to build? Each of our product lines is organized around one of the satellite industry’s air interface standards such as IPoS, RSM, and GMR1, approved by the world’s standards bodies—and based on significant contributions by Hughes. Each of these air interface standards has a unique custom chip that is engineered to perform the functions of that standard. The same chip can then be used across a range of terminals and models and will ensure compliance with the standard. For example, there is one set of chips for IPoS-based interfaces and a different set for mesh-type air interfaces such as those used with terminals powered by the SPACEWAY 3 satellite. A third type is a low-powered chip that we are developing for use in a battery-operated mobile satellite handset.
The Mobile Satellite Market
Speaking of mobile satellite networks, Hughes has developed custom components, systems, and terminals for the world’s leading mobilesat service providers. For example, since 2001 we’ve worked with Thuraya developing voice and data systems and handhelds, and this year developed a new packet data system and gateway. Similarly, we’re developing custom chip sets for TerreStar Networks and SkyTerra, both setting up mobile satellite services in the U.S., and for GlobalStar, a worldwide low earth orbit (LEO) satellite operator.
On another project, we’re working with Germany-based Infineon to develop an exciting software-defined radio (SDR) chip for use in dual-mode smart phones for TerreStar Networks and SkyTerra. This stateof-the-art chip will be programmable with highly efficient signal processing structures that can handle both cellular technologies (2G, 3G, and 4G) as well as GMR1-3G satellite standards. Such flexibility is unprecedented in a handheld-size smart phone and we expect it to result in a strong competitive advantage.
The Hughes Market Advantage
What’s truly amazing about chips is that every year we make them more complex, increasing the functionality and performance of our products—yet without increasing their price or size. Now that’s a sustaining market advantage. And it’s what makes every day in the life of our engineers so challenging and rewarding.