Intel to launch tri-mode Wi-Fi chipset

Fulfilling a long-time goal, Intel Corp. is set to introduce on Thursday its first chipset that supports all three current forms of Wi-Fi, according to sources familiar with the announcement.

With a chipset that includes IEEE 802.11a, b and g technology, a notebook PC can continue to connect to corporate wireless LANs without a hardware upgrade even if the enterprise migrates to a new infrastructure.

Other vendors already offer so-called “tri-mode” chipsets. Early this year Intel introduced a combination 802.11b/g chipset, but it has yet to include all three technologies.

Intel spokeperson Amy Martin declined to comment, but the company last week sent out an e-mail invitation to a Thursday morning Webcast “to introduce its latest wireless technology for Intel Centrino notebooks.”

“It really will mark the time that Intel’s caught up,” said Mike Feibus, an analyst at TechKnowledge Strategies Inc., in Scottsdale, Ariz. Intel’s size makes it less agile than smaller competitors such as Broadcom Corp., Atheros Communications Inc. and Texas Instruments Inc., which have had the chipsets for some time, some analysts said.

In addition, Intel is very careful because it has so much invested in the Centrino brand, said Linley Group analyst Bob Wheeler. “They are extremely rigorous in terms of testing, primarily for compatibility but also making sure that they are complying with all the appropriate specs,” Wheeler said.

The 802.11b and g technologies use radio spectrum around 2.4GHz to deliver data at a rate of 11Mbps and 54Mbps, respectively. The less common 802.11a variant, also with a 54Mbps rate, uses spectrum around 5GHz and can be used on more channels simultaneously. Also, there is less interference in the 5GHz band.

The 5GHz technology is likely to grow more popular as 802.11b and g networks get more heavily loaded with users, analysts said. The 2.4GHz technologies only allow for three channels to be used simultaneously. The number of channels on 802.11a varies by country but is generally more; it supports 24 in the U.S. That can make a difference in offices and crowded meeting rooms, Feibus said. Another emerging application for 802.11a is in wireless home entertainment systems.

Intel’s Centrino marketing also should help drive adoption of tri-mode technology, said Will Strauss, principal analyst at Forward Concepts Co., in Tempe, Ariz. But he believes most users, especially consumers, are happy with 802.11b/g for now. Demand for 802.11a will not suddenly soar, he said.

“We will see increasing demand…but it’s not going to be a hockey stick,” Strauss said.

Another analyst said tri-mode has a big future, at least in the business market.

“We’ll see the enterprise products go to a/b/g probably almost exclusively by the first or second quarter of next year, if not sooner than that,” said Abner Germanow, at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

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