Airgo Starts WLAN Chip Race

Buckle up, its nearly time for another 802.11 silicon speed race.

Analysts think startup Airgo Networks' announcement today, that it has signed up four manufacturers for its high-speed chip wireless LAN chip technology, represents the start of a race amongst vendors to deliver faster silicon with better range before the 802.11n specification becomes a standard (see IEEE Plots Speedier WLAN). The 802.11n standard may support speeds upwards of 108 Mbit/s and possibly as high as 300 Mbit/s.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) isn't expected to ratify the 802.11n standard until late next year or even 2006. But MIMO (multiple-input/multiple-output) smart antenna technology is expected to be a cornerstone of the specification. MIMO chipsets transmit multiple data streams using a single radio channel to increase throughput rates while extending range.

Airgo claims that it has the first true MIMO implementation for wireless LAN silicon and expects initial commercial products to ship early next year.

But analysts expect that chip rivals will soon follow suit, simply because if they don't have product out they may lose out in a marketplace hungry for the latest and greatest.

"Its pretty clear that all of the major manufacturers are going to do something," says Bob Wheeler of The Linley Group

Witness how most of the major vendors scrabbled to produce chips based on pre-standardized versions of 802.11g (54 Mbit/s over 2.4GHz). "Broadcom was the poster child for that," notes Craig Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group. "And they're still number one in 802.11g."

But MIMO products could present some technical hurdles for vendors because they require much more than simple radio tweaks and software updates. "MIMO is really hard to do," says Mathias.

That's why all of the analysts agree that the MIMO market could get confusing, with different vendors spinning their take on the technology as the real deal.

"There are at least half a dozen vendors out there who are coming out with MIMO-type products," says Will Strauss at Forward Concepts Co.

So it doesn't take a genius to see that there could be some interoperability speed bumps on the road to 802.11n nirvana.

— Dan "No Genius" Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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