Is IBM handing over key IC technology to China?

TechOnline India - October 19, 2009

IBM Corp. has struck its second major chip deal in China, leaving some to wonder if Big Blue is handing over technology to that nation without thinking about the possible consequences.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- IBM Corp. has struck its second major chip deal in China, leaving some to wonder if Big Blue is handing over technology to that nation without thinking about the possible consequences.

China's CSMC Technologies Corp. has signed an agreement with IBM under which Big Blue will license its 0.18-micron radio frequency (RF) CMOS semiconductor technology to the specialty foundry vendor.

This is the second foundry licensing deal for IBM in China. In 2007, Chinese foundry provider Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC) licensed IBM's 45-nm bulk CMOS technology.

Meanwhile, under the terms with CSMC, IBM will transfer a variety of 0.18-micron RF CMOS technology features and process elements as well as grant patent cross-licensing to CSMC (Wuxi).

The license are granted for use in CSMC's 200-mm wafer fab in Wuxi. The 200-mm wafer fab commenced production in 2009, with a planned installed capacity of 60,000 wafers per month.

''The licensing of high-performance RF advanced process platform complements our existing power analog process technology offerings,'' said Elvis Deng, President of CSMC, in a statement.

"The main application for the licensed technology is RF devices for receiving and transmitting RF signal of mobile phones, wireless routers and other high volume applications,'' he added. ''The licenses will allow CSMC to maintain a major factor in the mainland China and overseas RF ICs open foundry markets."

Founded in 1997, CSMC is a pure-play specialty analog foundry. It provides processes at production technology nodes ranging from 3.0- to 0.35-micron. In 2008, it became a subsidiary of China Resources (Holdings) Company Ltd.

CSMC has two fabs, plus a joint venture facility. Fab 1 contains a clean room of 6,400 square meters and operates at a production capacity of 60,000 6-inch wafers per month.

Fab 2 has started initial production and is targeted for phase one production capacities in early 2010. Fab 2 contains a clean room space of 18,322 square meters and its targeted ''phase one'' capacity is 30,000 8-inch wafers per month by the first half of 2010. It has a ''phase two'' target capacity of 60,000 8-inch wafers per month by 2012, with the process technologies migrated to 0.11 micron.

In 2008, CR Semiconductor Wafers & Chips Ltd. (CSWC) joined CSMC's management and became CSMC Fab 5. Fab 5 is using 0.6 micron capability for analog and digital circuit fabrication. Fab 5 currently contains a clean room of 3,000 square meters with production capacity of 30,000 6-inch wafers per month. The second phase clean room will be 3,000 square meters and the target production capacity will be doubled.

{pagebreak}Still, the question remains clear: Is Big Blue is handing over technology to China without thinking about the possible consequences?

On one hand, IBM is free to find new intellectual-property (IP) customers. In fact, IBM is a major IP player in semiconductors. For example, the company has licensed key technology to its process technology alliance. Members of IBM's ''fab club'' include GlobalFoundries, Infineon, NEC, Samsung, ST and Toshiba.

On the other hand, China's SMIC was able to gain access to IBM's 45-nm bulk CMOS technology in 2007. SMIC is not an official member of IBM's ''fab club.'' Still, it's unlikely that SMIC would have been unable to develop its own, in-house 45-nm technology -- in a timely manner.

Thanks to IBM, the Chinese foundry vendor will ramp the 45-nm technology next year--a possible bad sign for its rivals. Chartered, TSMC and UMC are just beginning to ship their respective 45-/40-nm wafers.

The 45-/40-nm node is still a fledging foundry market. SMIC, which is behind in technology, may end up catching its rivals--or worse.

SMIC, in turn, could bomb the prices at that node just to gain share. On the other hand, its rivals may also launch a price war -- just to keep SMIC at bay. Perhaps no foundry will make money at the 45-/40-nm node, despite pouring millions of dollars in R&D in the arena.

IBM's deal with CSMC is less threatening to the market. But like SMIC, CSMC is behind in technology and is a minor player in the foundry business. It was really a non-factor. But with the IBM deal, CSMC can at least jump into the conversation in the fledging analog foundry space.

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