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Agere, Broadcom Blitz 802.11g

It's only the first quarter, and already 2003 is shaping up as a big year for 802.11g wireless LANs. This week Agere Systems (NYSE: AGR/A) became the latest company to divulge 802.11a/g chipset plans, while Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) announced that it's shipped 3 million of its 802.11g chips since last December.

Agere

Agere's chips, part of a product family called WaveLAN, are being demonstrated at this week's CeBIT conference in Hannover, Germany. Sampling is due to begin next quarter, with volume shipments slated for August or September.

Agere is sticking to its "most integrated" story, saying its 802.11a/g chipset integrates better than its competitors'. This refers to the swarm of analog electronics that usually sits alongside any wireless chip set; these parts are necessary for handling radio signals but, being analog, aren't always easy to include on chips.

The extra analog parts can number 200 on a board, and Agere has stuffed half of those onto its chips, making for a more compact architecture and a simpler board design, says Tony Grewe, director of strategic marketing.

Agere also combines the 802.11a (54-Mbit/s over 5GHz) and 802.11g (54-Mbit/s over 2.4GHz) radios into a single chip, where some early products such as Broadcom's use two separate chips.

But where does the integration end? Agere is keeping the baseband and media access controller (MAC) chips separate. Many companies integrate these two functions, since they're easy to combine onto one chip, but some are saying that OEMs prefer to spin their own MACs, making such integration more a burden than a help (see IceFyre Moves Into Dual Mode).

So, for those keeping score at home, Agere winds up with three chips: radio, baseband, and MAC. That total count is comparable to competitors' offerings. It also matches the three-chip arrangement Agere uses for 802.11b (11-Mbit/s over 2.4GHz).

The key to making dual-band chips succeed is going to be the pricing, because if an 802.11a/g chipset costs the same as an 802.11g chipset, more OEMs will buy the a/g product and use it for a variety of product lines, rather than buy g and a devices separately, Grewe says.

"Just as the 802.11a-only didn't pan out, I don't think g-only is going to pan out. PC OEMs are looking for something where they're not going to carry multiple SKUs."

That's not so far-fetched. An 802.11b chip set costs just $15, and Grewe says Agere is "on track" to have 802.11a/g chips drop to that level. Grewe expects 802.11b to still carry the day in 2003 but to be replaced rapidly by dual-mode chip sets in 2004.

Broadcom

Meanwhile, Broadcom continues to extend its headstart in 802.11g, as the company now says it's shipped 3 million 802.11g chips -- remarkable, considering shipments didn't start until after Comdex Fall 2002, this past November. Note that these are pre-standard 802.11g parts, as the standard won't be ratified until summer at least. Broadcom is using the moniker "54G" to indicate its pre-standard devices, and OEMs are putting that label on products much as PC makers use "Intel Inside."

Broadcom officials are also trying to ease concerns that 802.11g and 802.11b might have trouble interoperating (see Interop Woes Smite 802.11g). They claim many of those worries were exaggerated in the first place, and others were the result of first-revision products that have since been fine-tuned.

To prove its point, the company also got its 802.11g products certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance, indicating that the chips are "officially" interoperable with 802.11b equipment (see Broadcom 54g Gets Certified). "We've made tremendous strides in proving to folks interoperability is not a concern," says Jeff Abramowitz, Broadcom's senior director of marketing.

Abramowitz concedes that early 802.11g access points slowed down considerably when an 802.11b client appeared on the network, a problem inherent in older versions of the 802.11g specification laid out by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE). "That has been rectified. All of our vendors are shipping with the draft 6.1 version" of the 802.11g spec, he says.

It's still true that an all-802.11g network gets better performance than a mixed environment, Abramowitz says. But the slip in performance isn't catastrophic, as it was in early tests. And, of course, Abramowitz sees a sunny side to this whole effect: "If you have a mixed environment and you keep adding g access points, your performance is going to improve."

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading



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