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Intel's Chafing Chipsets

Intel Corp.'s (Nasdaq: INTC) decision to again delay the launch of its dualmode 802.11a (54-Mbit/s over 5GHz) and b (11-Mbit/s over 2.4GHz) Centrino-branded chipset has handed rivals a golden opportunity to capitalize on the U.S. giant’s setback.

Intel’s current Centrino chipset only supports the original b spec -- lagging behind rival offerings from the likes of Agere Systems Inc. (NYSE: AGR.A), Atheros Communications Inc., and Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM), which all now have products supporting the new 802.11g (54-Mbit/s over 2.4GHz) standard. Intel originally said it would unveil a dualmode a and b chipset at the end of last year. Subsequently it hinted heavily at a July 2003 launch (see Centrino Adds A, Not G).

A combined 802.11a/b part is now not expected to arrive until early in the fourth quarter of this year. “We are going through final testing and validation with our OEM’s and expect a shipping date of early Q4,” Intel spokesman Graham Palmer tells Unstrung. “It has certainly moved a few weeks from our initial targets, but that is down to making sure the platform validation and testing is completed.”

A dual-band 802.11 a/b/g chipset has also been pushed back. “We expect to have it in production around the middle of next year,” adds Palmer.

Competitors have been quick to play on Intel’s woes. Announcements by both Atheros and Broadcom today make a song and dance over the data transmission rates of their new g products compared to Intel’s b-only offering, as well as a resulting increase in desktop battery life (see Broadcom Ships WLAN Chips and Atheros Upgrades WLAN Chips).

Broadcom claims its new 802.11g chip can extend battery power by twenty minutes compared to the same notebook using a Centrino chipset, with users able to transfer data up to five times faster.

“In a traditional usage pattern we are giving users a better overall experience,” says Broadcom's director of technology and product planning for wireless LAN, Mike Medina.

Atheros is making equally bold claims, stating that its latest 802.11 a/b/g chipsets can reduce power consumption by “more than 30 percent compared to the 802.11b device used in Centrino systems.”

Analysts note the significance of today's moves. “These announcements are important, as Atheros and Broadcom are continuing to better their technology and drive the market forward, while Intel remains something of a laggard,” comments Aaron Vance, industry analyst at Synergy Research Group Inc. “Most people assume Intel may eventually dominate the technology, so it is important for rival players to continue to gain customers and keep existing ones.”

The rewards for market dominance could be great. A recent Unstrung Insider report expects tumbling prices and a fivefold increase in volumes of wireless LAN chipsets to create a market worth $1 billion a year by 2007 (see WLAN Chipset Market Sizzles).

— Justin Springham, Senior Editor, Europe, Unstrung
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