Airgo Networks, whose MIMO antenna technology pioneered a new generation of Wi-Fi gear with dramatically improved range and throughput, Wednesday announced a new product line it says will match data speeds of standard ethernet.

Airgo’s True MIMO Gen3 with ACE products — which range from Wi-Fi chip sets to reference designs, firmware, and software — will enable wireless networking equipment with a theoretical maximum speed of 240 megabits per second, or more than 4.5 times the theoretical 54-mbps speed of 802.11 a and 802.11g Wi-Fi networks, Airgo president and chief executive Greg Raleigh says.

That will translate to real-world throughput, at close range, of about 115 mbps, or about three times the speed of today’s fastest MIMO-enhanced 802.11g networks and more than five times the speed of non-MIMO 802.11g networks, Raleigh says. (In PC World tests, real-world speeds for today’s MIMO networks were considerably slower than the 40mbps or so assumed by Airgo, in part because Airgo’s numbers estimate performance on an unsecured network, and we test with security activated.)

Stream that digital content?

At its fastest real-world speed, a network based on Airgo’s True MIMO Gen3 with ACE products will be faster than one based on conventional ethernet, which tops out at 100mbps, Raleigh says. (Gigabit-ethernet is still uncommon in home networks.)

“Up until now consumers have always asked the question, ‘Why should I go wireless?'” Raleigh says. “The question now is, ‘Why should I go wired?'”

Analyst Bob Wheeler of The Linley Group in Mountain View, California, says he believes Airgo’s new line will enable streaming of high-definition video in most homes and small businesses. “That’s where the higher data rates come into play,” he says.

Death to Homeplug?

The technology could well deal a death blow to the coming HomePlug AV products for powerline networking, Wheeler says. The HomePlug AV standard, which calls for speeds of up to 200mbps, was only ratified a few weeks ago, and products have yet to appear, but backers of the technology (including Intel) see it as the best choice for streaming video.

Among other things, it doesn’t get slower as it has to cover more ground, which is a problem with Wi-Fi. However Raleigh says a Gen3-based network could still achieve speeds of about 38mbps — more than enough for HD video — when data is transmitted across four large rooms, and Wheeler says very few homes are large enough to require more robust technology.

However, Wheeler doesn’t believe Gen3 with ACE will find much acceptance in the corporate world. “They will not adopt it until it’s an industry standard, and that won’t happen until 2007,” he said. An IEEE committee is currently hammering out specifications for an 802.11n Wi-Fi standard that is expected to include the spatial multiplexing technology that Airgo pioneered.

Behind the scenes

Airgo does not actually market Wi-Fi gear to consumers. Rather, it designs the chip sets, and creates reference designs, firmware, and software for companies who manufacture and market networking equipment. Belkin’s popular Wireless Pre-N and Linksys’ Wireless-G with SRX products are based on Airgo’s original True MIMO technology.

The new Gen3 with ACE line attains its superior speeds through a combination of improved signal processing that results in a denser signal, and the adaptive channel expansion (or ACE) technology from which the product line draws part of its name. Raleigh describes ACE as a Wi-Fi friendly manner of transmitting over two of 802.11g Wi-Fi’s three non-overlapping channels to increase bandwidth and thereby speed up data throughput.

A number of Wi-Fi vendors already use technology called channel bonding to speed up their networks by transmitting over all three non-overlapping channels, but this can interrupt service on nearby Wi-Fi networks that are left with no unused channels. Raleigh says ACE at least only uses two channels (leaving the third one free for a neighbor), and only does so after ensuring that no other network needs the second channel.

No network equipment vendors have announced Gen3-based products, but Raleigh says he expects to see the first shipping products by the end of this year. Routers and adapters will appear first, but Raleigh says Airgo is indeed talking to consumer electronics manufacturers about putting the technology into digital entertainment products for networked homes. “This is the key that unlocks the digital home,” he says.