CEBIT : Intel’s desktop chipsets face Chinese challenge

Chinese end users won’t be able to take advantage of a feature in Intel Corp.’s upcoming Grantsdale and Alderwood chipsets that allows PCs to function as access points for a wireless network unless the dispute over China’s wireless LAN (WLAN) standard is resolved, a company executive said Saturday.

Intel plans to start shipping its Grantsdale and Alderwood chipsets for the Pentium 4 during the second quarter of this year. Chipsets are used to connect a PC’s processor with its memory and other components, such as a hard disk drive or a graphics card.

The affected chipsets are among the first from Intel to support PCI Express high-speed bus technology and Double Data Rate 2 (DDR2) memory. The shift to PCI Express from the existing PCI bus technology is particularly significant

“This will become our computing platform for the next 10 years,” said Bill Leszinske, director of chipset and software marketing at Intel’s Desktop Products Group, speaking on the sidelines of the Cebit exhibition in Hanover, Germany.

In addition to support for PCI Express and DDR2, some versions of the chipsets have the ability to turn a PC equipped with a WLAN card into an access point (AP) for 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g wireless networks. This feature, called soft access point, will make it easier for home users to set up a wireless network, Leszinske said.

“Forty percent of home WLAN equipment gets returned because users are having a hard time setting them up,” he said, referring to the U.S. market.

Grantsdale and Alderwood may make setting up a wireless home network easier for users but the AP feature — which only supports 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g — falls afoul of China’s national WLAN standard. The Chinese WLAN standard is very close to the 802.11 wireless networking standard but it employs a different security protocol, WLAN Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure (WAPI).

“Implementing the soft access point will be a challenge until we resolve the issue for the security standards,” Leszinske said.

The Chinese standard requires that all WLAN gear sold in China, including APs, use WAPI as the security protocol. The standard took effect on Dec. 1, 2003, but the Standardization Administration of China has extended the compliance deadline for some WLAN products until June 1.

To gain access to WAPI, foreign WLAN vendors are required to enter into coproduction agreements with one of about 20 Chinese companies that have been granted rights to the technology.

That provision has raised the ire of U.S. industry organizations, who say the coproduction requirement forces foreign vendors to share proprietary technology with their Chinese rivals. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and other senior U.S. officials have also weighed in on the matter with a letter to Chinese officials that called the standard’s implementation a barrier to trade.

For its part, Intel has already said it will not comply with the Chinese WLAN standard by the June 1 deadline. The company has said it currently has no plans to support WAPI but did not rule out the possibility of providing support for WAPI.

As a result of that decision, Intel will stop shipments to Chinese users of the WLAN chipsets that make up part of its Centrino platform. The company will continue to sell the Pentium M, the processor component of the Centrino platform, in China after June 1, the company said.

If Intel is not able to sell the AP-enabled Grantsdale and Alderwood chipsets in China after June 1, the company has other versions of the chipsets that do not have the AP function, Leszinske said.

“Customers can purchase the version of Grantsdale that supports that (AP function) or not,” he said. Another alternative would be to offer the AP-enabled versions of Grantsdale and Alderwood to Chinese users but not install the WLAN card necessary to connect a PC to a wireless network

“You could actually ship the version with the soft access point and if we resolve the issues with the Chinese standard, it’s solved and you could actually add in the card yourself,” Leszinske said.

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