Broadcom claimed it has begun shipping the first three-chip 802.11a/g hybrid chipsets, which Dell Computer will include in its line of Latitude notebooks.
Although the "g" standard remains unfinished, vendors like Broadcom are satisfied that the IEEE committee has settled upon a technical implementation. Barring interference and channel limitations, an "a/g"-enabled notebook should run at 54 Mbits/s, using either the 2.4-GHz or 5-GHz spectrum band.
While Dell is already providing a "g"-only, no-cost upgrade to some its Intel Centrino-based notebooks, the company will begin allowing customers on Monday to configure their notebooks for 802.11a/g for an additional $69, according to Broadcom executives.
"The a/g story is future-proofing at its finest," said Jeff Thermond, vice-president and general manager of Broadcoms home and wireless networking business units.
Compatibility, however, still remains a sticking point; Broadcom has succeeded in winning notebook designs, but rival Atheros Communications has convinced router manufacturers to adopt its chips. Until the "g" standard is finalized, however, neither vendors chipset can be assured that they will interoperate with the other.
Atheros has yet to formally announce an 802.11a/g chipset, although the company said it was sampling an "a/b/g" chipset in the middle of last year. D-Link and Netgear have taken Atheros discrete 802.11g component and built it inside their wireless router and PC Card solutions. Meanwhile, no other top-tier PC maker besides Dell has integrated 802.11a/g. Hewlett-Packards Compaq 2100 and 2500 use a discrete 802.11g chip from Broadcom.
Broadcom has received WiFi certification for both 802.11a and 802.11b compatibility and interoperability, Thermond said.
Analyst group Gartner last month said that it was advising its enterprise clients to hold off on using 802.11g because of the interoperability gulf between vendors. However, analysts at the firm also anticipated the standard would be passed without incident, and that "a/g" chipsets will be the direction the industry will go.
"By the end of the year a/b will be a non-starter," said Ken Dulaney, a Gartner wireless analyst. "By that time youll see a/g, and by the same time b and a will be mature."
Gartner predicts that 6.9 million or 33 percent of the 23.3 million wireless chipsets shipped this year into the adapter market (including discrete PC Cards and cards for PDAs) will be integrated directly into PCs.
Just under 70 percent of the chipsets to be shipped this year will be 802.11b, with "a"-only chipsets representing 19 percent of the mix, Gartner predicts. Discrete g chipsets will represent just 4 percent of the 802.11 adapter market, while any-flavor of dual-band adapter will represent about 7 percent of the market. By 2007, however, the firm predicts that dual-band chipset adapters will represent about 69 percent of all units sold.
Home WiFi hardware sales are expected to increase in 2003 by very healthy 160 percent, to 6.8 million units, according to research firm In-Stat/MDR. "Long term, a/g is going to be the chipset of choice," said Gemma Paulo, an In-Stat/MDR wireless analyst.
For many home users, however, a 54-Mbit a/g chipset and possibly even a discrete b implementation will be overkill, Dulaney pointed out. Thats because many home users download information from the Internet over a 1.5-Mbit broadband connection—a theoretical figure in many cases.
"A/g will only go into the enterprise," Dulaney said. "Theres kind of a joke here thats going on. All these vendors are preying on the consumer, who thinks that just because they see 54 Mbits on box its better than anything else.
"Unless theyre transferring a lot of heavy-duty video files around the house, I dont see the point," Dulaney added. "Unless g is free, its a waste of money."
Security, however, will likely be a perpetual concern, and was the most-talked about issue when clients discussed using WiFi in the enterprise, In-Stat/MDRs Paulo said. Broadcoms new a/g chipset includes support for the Cisco Compatible Extensions security feature developed by Cisco. The chipsets also support AES encryption, plus WEP, the foundation for the forthcoming 802.11i standard.
"If you buy today, the customer will be able to expect that (wireless) will be current for the life of the notebook," Thermond said.
Monday also marks the third anniversary of WiFi compliance testing, the WiFi Alliance is expected to announce. The industry group said that 677 WiFi (802.11-compliant) products from 113 companies have received certification since testing began in March 2000, including 12 dual-band products.