Wireless LAN to spread its wings with new chips

High-speed wireless LAN users may get more freedom and better security as the provider of IEEE 802.11a chips to many equipment vendors rolls out its second-generation silicon over the next few months.

Chips coming from Atheros Communications Inc. will bring enhancements such as international support, interoperability with other wireless LAN technologies and enterprise-class networking capabilities, the company announced Monday.

The 802.11a standard provides for theoretical maximum throughput of 54Mbps, several times the 11Mbps top performance of the currently popular 802.11b equipment. It uses radio spectrum in a different range, around 5GHz, whereas 802.11b uses 2.4GHz. Atheros last year began providing 802.11a chips to several vendors for building client interfaces and hubs, or access points. Its customers today include NetGear Inc., Intel Corp., D-Link Corp. Inc., Sony Corp., Proxim Inc. and SMC Networks Inc.

However, the fledgling standard has been confined mainly to the home market, both because enterprises are taking a cautious approach and because some high-end features they demand are not available yet with 802.11a, according to Aaron Vance, an analyst at Synergy Research Inc., in Phoenix.

By the end of the second quarter, Atheros will begin volume shipments of three new hardware platforms on which vendors can build more advanced 802.11a products, according to Sheung Li, product line manager at Atheros.

The company’s AR5001A client chipset will be able to “listen” to spectrum ranges that have been assigned to 802.11a use in Japan and Europe, as well as the North American spectrum ranges, so a client can start communicating with an access point outside its home region if the user travels there.

For security, the chipset will include support for AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) and TKIP (Temporal Key Initiation Protocol) as well as the current WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) standard, and will support the draft 802.11e standard for guaranteed quality of service over a wireless LAN. Atheros’ Turbo Mode technology will let users utilize two channels together for theoretical throughput as high as 108Mbps, Li said.

Client nodes based on the AR5001A chipset could be priced similarly to current 802.11a clients that lack the extra features, according to Li.

The AR5001X client chipset will include silicon for the 802.11b and 802.11g standards as well as 802.11a. The 802.11g standard is a faster wireless LAN technology that also uses the 2.4GHz spectrum. Users will be able to roam seamlessly between networks that use any of the three technologies, as well as between different countries, according to Li.

With this chipset, Atheros probably will be among the first on the block with a kind of functionality that will be critical to the success of 802.11a, said Allen Nogee, an analyst at Cahners In-Stat MDR, in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“802.11a by itself is pretty limited, at least to start with, because it doesn’t support the 802.11b nodes that are out there,” Nogee said. Many companies have already deployed 802.11b networks and in some cases will turn to 802.11g to get higher speed with backward compatibility. In some locations, employees also will be able to take advantage of 802.11a.

“If you have an “a-g-b” chipset, then of course you have the best of everything,” Nogee said, though the three-way clients probably will be more expensive than single-band systems, at least initially.

The AR5001AP access point chipset will integrate enterprise LAN features such as VPNs (virtual private networks), VLANs (virtual LANs) and the IEEE 802.1x specification for network access control. Along with the high-powered AES packet encryption, these features will help protect 802.11a networks from intrusion or snooping, Lee said.

Although these advanced access-point chipsets may require some software updates after the 802.11e standard is finalized, the new security capabilities will be welcomed in enterprises, according to Nogee.

“Businesses and enterprises are looking for another way. WEP is not very secure,” Nogee said.

Atheros has not yet priced the chipsets, Li said. The company expects products based on them will start shipping in the second half of this year.

Atheros, in Sunnyvale, Calif., can be reached at http://www.atheros.com.