Atheros unveils gear for cheaper fast WLAN

Wireless LAN access points based on the first draft of a new, faster standard are likely to dip below US$100 for the holidays.

Atheros Communications Inc., one of the major providers of chipsets for prestandard wireless LAN gear based on the first draft of the IEEE 802.11n standard, is set to unveil on Monday a new chipset and networking processor that it thinks will let equipment vendors sell access points for less than $100.

Draft 802.11n products started rolling onto the market right after the first draft of the standard was finished early this year. They are not expected to be fully compatible with the final standard, coming next year or in 2008, but can deliver a boost in speed and range over current-standard 802.11g gear. The new technology uses multiple antennas and radios to get that boost.

Most draft 802.11n routers today sell for about $120 to $130 at retail, according to market researcher Dell’Oro Group Inc. Vendors overall are aiming for retail prices below $100 for the fourth-quarter holiday shopping season, said Dell’Oro’s Elmer Choy. Prestandard products have gained some traction despite premium prices and will start moving in bigger numbers as prices fall over the remainder of this year, according to Choy.

Atheros already has draft 802.11n offerings that use three transmitter radio-and-antenna combinations as well as three receiver units. Its XSpan 2×2, set to be announced Monday, uses just two of each. That means a step down in throughput, but products using it will still be much faster than today’s standard gear: more than 100M bps (bits per second) at 50 feet (15.24 meters) or 25M bps at 150 feet, according to the company’s estimates.

To help drive down system costs, Atheros also is set to introduce its own central processors for wireless LAN routers. The AR7100 processor will come in 300MHz and 400MHz versions, each with a variety of interfaces including support for two USB (universal serial bus) ports for wireless LAN printers or other devices. The 300MHz processor will support 10/100M bps Ethernet and the faster version will support Gigabit Ethernet, said Harpreet Chohan, a senior product marketing manager at Atheros, in Santa Clara, California. He expects most customers to buy the central processor and chipset together.

By supplying its own processor as the basic brains of the router rather than using another vendor’s general-purpose processor, Atheros removes the piece of a product’s cost that represents that third party’s profit, said Joe Byrne of Linley Research, in Mountain View, California. Rival Broadcom Corp., a big supplier of all kinds of networking silicon, already pairs a homegrown processor with its draft 802.11n chipsets, he said.

The products are shipping to equipment makers in sample quantities and products based on them should hit stores in the fourth quarter, Atheros said.

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