Wireless-G just got cheaper, smaller, less power hungry

Atheros Communications Inc. has begun volume shipments of what it claims is the industry’s first single-chip 802.11g wireless LAN system, the latest product aiming to put Wi-Fi into new classes of low-cost, low-power devices, the company said on Monday.

802.11g has spread rapidly in enterprise and consumer products since the standard’s ratification last year, helped by its backward-compatibility with the ubiquitous 802.11b Wi-Fi standard. The next step is to surmount cost and power-usage barriers that are currently limiting 802.11g’s effectiveness in products such as mobile handsets. Atheros’ AR5005G 802.11g chip, which began sampling in January, will compete with low-power or single-chip products from Broadcom Corp., Texas Instruments Inc. and others.

The AR5005G combines a Media Access Controller (MAC), baseband and 2.4GHz radio. It uses 35 per cent fewer parts than the company’s two-chip product and will cut bill-of-materials (BOM) costs for manufacturers by about 30 per cent, Atheros promised. The chip is aimed at everything from PC cards and access points to IP telephony handsets; D-Link Systems Inc. plans to use the chip in its 802.11g products, the company said on Monday.

The chip supports security standards such as Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) and 802.11i in hardware, minimizing the drag on performance, and the draft 802.11e standard’s provisions for quality of service. An enhanced version, the AR5005GS, adds Atheros’ 802.11g acceleration technology, Super G. The chips use a new power-management technology to reduce power use by up to 98 per cent compared with multi-chip products now on the market, Atheros said.

Greater integration has several advantages, say industry observers: for one, an integrated chip is cheaper to manufacture, meaning immediately lower costs for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Fewer parts also makes design of finished products cheaper and simpler. Lower power consumption means wireless can be built into battery-powered devices such as handheld computers, laptops and potentially voice handsets.

“By driving performance, cost and integration to this level, we are opening new markets that aren’t well served by multiple chip solutions,” said Atheros vice-president of business development Colin Macnab, in a statement.

Integrated chips also pave the way for entirely new kinds of products incorporating several different kinds of wireless network technologies, such as GSM, 3G and WiMax, in addition to WLAN. “The bigger story here is the move toward a broader wireless broadband strategy incorporating other kinds of technologies,” Infonetics analyst Richard Webb told Techworld.

“For a subscriber who wants broadband on the move, service providers can bundle it in a way that he will get the best available network or service depending on where they are, whether it’s a hotspot, 3G or whatever.”

Telcos such as T-Mobile International AG have already taken a step in this direction by rolling out bundled Wi-Fi, GPRS and 3G packages for a flat monthly fee.

Many industry analysts believe that mobile phone handsets combining GSM with the ability to route IP telephony calls over Wi-Fi will make a huge impact in the enterprise. Although current attempts at Wi-Fi VoIP are unspectacular, integrated WLAN chips could help solve issues such as battery life.

Competitors are not far behind Atheros, with Broadcom — one of Atheros’ main competitors — announcing last week that it had begun sampling its own single-chip 802.11g product. Broadcom said it sees its single-chip “54g” product as a direct competitor to the AR5005G.

“We were the first in the industry to roll out single-chip 802.11b six months ago,” said Broadcom spokesman Henry Rael. “In that chip we solved a lot of problems, like how to put RF and digital on the same chip. We are applying what we learned there to the 802.11g chip.”

Last month Texas Instruments announced its third-generation Wi-Fi chipset aimed at mobile devices such as PDAs and mobile phones, saying it is half the size of its previous version. The two-chip system boasts lower power consumption on standby, 40 percent lower power consumption when in active use and better interaction with Bluetooth and other wireless technologies, TI said.

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