Report: Multimode –The Way to Go?

A split is emerging among U.S. wireless LAN (WLAN) silicon vendors over which Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) standard should be supported in the next generation of wireless chipsets, according to the new report from Wireless Oracle, Unstrung’s paid subscription service. However, the industry may surmount the problem by introducing multimode chipsets that can support all the popular 802.11 WLAN standards, according to the report.

Intersil Corp. and Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN) are backing the newly ratified 802.11g, which, like the older 802.11b (WiFi) specification, runs over the 2.4GHz band. Meanwhile, Atheros Communications and others are backing the 802.11a standard, which started to emerge last year. Unlike “b” or “g”, the “a” specification shuttles data over the 5GHz band. Both 802.11a and 802.11g offer maximum data transfer speeds of 54 Mbit/s, in the lab at least.

The move to a newer, faster WLAN standard is a sea change for an industry built on 802.11b. WiFi chipset players Agere Systems (NYSE: AGR) and Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) have not yet decided which standard they will support.

Supporters of the “g” specification stress the importance of backwards compatibility with the existing 802.11b specification and the greater data transfer range offered by the specification. Meanwhile, cheerleaders for the “a” variant say that the specification can support more users than “g” and runs in a band less subject to interference than the already crowded 2.4GHz band.

One way around the question of which standard to support is to support all of them. Atheros and Intersil, among others, are looking to bring these “next generation” multimode chipsets to market. The chipsets will be able to support the whole alphabet soup of IEEE wireless LAN standards and possibly, in the future, Bluetooth and WLAN specifications developed outside the IEEE. This is because the chipsets use both 2.4GHz and 5GHz coupled with a baseband controller that supports the modulation techniques used by the different standards.

The race is on to be the first to introduce a multimode chipset. “Intersil is currently the market leader in developing 802.11 solutions,” says Wireless Oracle analyst Jake Kaldenbaugh, who wrote the report. ”It currently has about 60 percent of the market and is battling it out with private player Atheros to introduce the next generation of WLAN chips.”

Both companies have powerful customers backing them. Intersil has an alliance with Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO); Atheros numbers Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) among its customers.

Despite Intersil’s leadership position in the market, Kaldenbaugh figures that Atheros may have the technical edge. “Atheros’s product line boasts an impressive array of functionality that, frankly, will be required by the others to stay in the game,” he says. These features include a “turbo boost” mode that ramps up 802.11a data transfer speeds to 108 Mbit/s; advanced encryption features; and support for the Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS) and Transmit Power Control (TPC) features that are likely to be required if European regulators are to approve 802.11a.

Atheros is currently beating Intersil in the race to market, according to the Wireless Oracle. The California startup is sampling its multimode chipset now and expects to start shipping in the second quarter of this year, while Intersil expects its multimode silicon to hit the market in the first quarter of 2003. Other companies developing multimode products include Synad Technologies Ltd. and Embedded Wireless Devices Inc.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
http://www.unstrung.com For information about subscribing to Wireless Oracle, go to http://www.wireless-oracle.com

Editor's Note: Light Reading is not affiliated with Oracle Corporation.
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