Comms chips

802.11n Takes a Step Forward

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) has taken another step towards ratifying the next major wireless LAN standard, which is now expected to be made official in the summer.

The 108-Mbit/s-plus 802.11n standard more than doubles the standard data rates available from today's 802.11g products. The cornerstone of the technology is multiple-input/multiple-output (MIMO) "smart antenna" arrays that send snapshots of the data being transmitted over two or more signals to improve the bandwidth and data rates achieved via wireless LAN radios. (See IEEE Plots Speedier WLAN.)

The interim Task Group N (TGn) meeting in London last week has apparently resolved all of the technical comments about the 802.11n draft 1.0 specification. The group unanimously approved the creation of a draft 1.10, moving the specification much closer to a final draft, according to Bill McFarland, CTO of chipmaker Atheros Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: ATHR).

The group will now begin a 15-day letter ballot to determine whether a 2.0 version based on the 1.10 draft should be created and submitted for technical review -- which would involve another 30-day letter ballot.

Some vendors -- notably Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) -- have been touting their products as "draft 2.0-compliant" before such a specification even exists, presumably in anticipation of the IEEE move. Atheros reports that there will likely be few changes to the technical details now, which jibes with what Unstrung has been hearing from other players. This should mean that Atheros -- and others -- only require a software upgrade to be compliant with the latest draft. (See Qualcomm Buys Airgo, RFMD Assets.)

The latest engineering agreement should also help to ensure better interoperability among so-called "pre-n" chipsets, since the latest draft looks likely to be ready before the Wi-Fi Alliance starts its work on this interim silicon. (See WiFi's High-Speed Compromise.)

Financial analysts at Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. expect the overall WLAN market to grow by 25 percent in 2007, driven in part by 802.11n, as well as games consoles and mobile devices. "The mad rush to get draft 'compliant' 802.11n gear out the door left numerous interoperability and performance issues unresolved, but it now appears that these problems have been mostly fixed," writes ML's Srini Pajjuri in a research note. (See 802.11: Fatally Flawed?)

Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) appears to lead in this nascent market, the analyst writes, closely followed by Atheros Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: ATHR) and Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: MRVL). More competition is coming soon from Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), which "is beginning to ship its 802.11n based Centrino, which we think will be a significant catalyst for this technology," Pajjuri notes.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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