Broadcom puts Wi-Fi into one chip

Wi-Fi won’t weigh down handheld devices as much starting in the fourth quarter, as Broadcom Corp. introduces a single-chip component that provides IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN (WLAN) connectivity.

The company unveiled on Monday its AirForce OneChip, which is already shipping in sample quantities and will appear in devices by the end of the year, starting with PDAs, according to Jeff Abramowitz, senior director of wireless LAN marketing at Broadcom, in Irvine, Calif.

IEEE 802.11b WLAN technology, offering a maximum carrying capacity of 11Mbps, is already available in some PDAs and in add-on devices such as cards that fit in Compact Flash slots. Broadcom says the integration of the whole Wi-Fi system into a single chip means less drain on a PDA’s battery as well as lower cost and smaller size. OneChip consumes an average of 85 per cent less power than other Wi-Fi systems on the market, according to Broadcom. Existing Wi-Fi components on handhelds can consume half the battery’s power, halving battery life, Abramowitz said.

Future applications of OneChip could include digital cameras, MP3 music players and Wi-Fi voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones, he said.

The market for Wi-Fi on handheld devices has not been large so far and Broadcom is looking to seed that market with the new hardware, analysts said.

“Clearly the hope is that now that this is available, developers of systems that previously wouldn’t have looked at wireless LAN…now will look at it,” said Gartner Inc. analyst Joe Byrne.

Though Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner is optimistic about the integration of WLAN capability into PDAs, the consulting company is more cautious about its popularity on cell phones, Byrne said.

Cell phones already communicate with a network and increasingly have fairly high-speed wireless data access through technologies such as Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA2000 1x) and General Packet Radio Service (GPRS). In addition, they have fairly small screens and limited features for data input, said Gartner analyst Michael King. The higher speed connectivity offered by Wi-Fi could be overkill, he said.

“It’s akin to hooking a fire hose up to a drinking fountain,” King said.

However, there may be some situations in which Wi-Fi would come in handy on a combination PDA-phone, Gartner’s Byrne said. For example, an employee who carries that device into a meeting at company headquarters might want to access e-mail via the corporate WLAN rather than the carrier’s data network because it’s faster and there are no service charges.

Another issue for Broadcom is the specter of Intel’s Centrino offering for notebooks, which integrates Wi-Fi functionality into the system’s main chipset. Broadcom will have limited opportunity to compete against Centrino on the notebook side, which represents the lion’s share of the overall Wi-Fi market, so it needs to find or cultivate new markets, Byrne said.

Abramowitz said Broadcom’s Wi-Fi offerings for notebooks offer higher performance and lower power consumption than does Centrino and Broadcom intends to keep competing in that market.

Broadcom integrated an 802.11b baseband processor, a power amplifier, a Media Access Controller (MAC) and all other radio components, including the 2.4GHz radio itself, into a single chip. That brings the size of a complete chip module down to 14.8 millimetres by 26.5 millimetres (0.58 inches by 1.04 inches), about one-seventh the size of Broadcom’s current Wi-Fi module for PCI cards, Broadcom said.

In addition to smaller chip size and greater integration, Broadcom has cut Wi-Fi power consumption with software it calls SuperStandby. SuperStandby wakes up the minimum amount of circuitry on the chip for the shortest possible time to check for incoming data, according to the company. As a result, OneChip consumes 97 per cent less power in standby mode than does Intel Corp.’s Centrino chipset for notebooks, the company said.

In addition, OneChip’s OneDriver software includes support for several security capabilities, including WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access), CCX (Cisco Compatible Extensions) and AES (Advanced Encryption Standard), according to Broadcom.

Next, Broadcom plans to apply the lessons it’s learned developing OneChip to Wi-Fi modules for notebooks. For PCs, Broadcom is now focusing on faster 802.11g and 802.11a/g technology that is still in the form of multiple-chip solutions, Abramowitz said. However, advancements to be announced next week, such as lower power consumption, will be a boon to those systems as well, Abramowitz said.

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