Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Make Peace

By Carmen Nobel  |  Posted 2002-05-13

Wireless hardware manufacturers are talking up a way to make Bluetooth and Wi-Fi work together, but it may be a while before users get their first glimpse of the technology.

Wireless LAN chip-set provider Intersil Corp. and Bluetooth radio maker Silicon Wave Inc. last week announced a reference design that allows for simultaneous operation of the two wireless protocols. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi (the 802.11b protocol) operate in the same radio band, but Bluetooth has been known for slowing or even shutting down Wi-Fi connections.

The pair demonstrated here at the NetWorld+Interop show their Blue802 technology. A notebook equipped with a Blue802 mini-PCI card sent a video stream to a WLAN access point while also sending data to a Bluetooth-enabled printer.

The Blue802 technology uses a time-slicing technique in which the two protocols switch back and forth fast enough that the connection seems simultaneous.

Startup Mobilian Corp., of Hillsboro, Ore., announced its own Bluetooth/ Wi-Fi radio more than a year ago. Its TrueRadio two-chip chip set puts the basebands of both protocols on one chip and the two radios on the other, promising actual simultaneous operation. The product isnt available yet.

Officials at Intersil, in San Jose, Calif., and Silicon Wave said they chose to start with a mini-PCI reference design because it will be cheaper for users to buy a notebook integrated with a technology than to buy separate modules. Mini-PCI cards are expected to cost notebook vendors about $50 each.

The mini-PCI chip set could be available in volume by next quarter, but officials acknowledged that potential licensees are also interested in PC Card and CompactFlash solutions.

The two companies are in the process of choosing a company to develop the mini-PCI cards in volume, and they are wooing potential OEMs to buy the chip sets once they are ready. Intersil is the best-known chip-set maker in the Wi-Fi space and already lists several notebook vendors among its customers, and Silicon Wave is considered a veteran of Bluetooth.

"All the top-level OEMs are at least interested in a field trial," said Dave Lyon, CEO of Silicon Wave, in San Diego.

Nevertheless, it may be a tough sell because Bluetooth is still a tough sell. While Wi-Fi was designed as a networking technology and Bluetooth as a simple cable replacement with a better range than infrared, the two now often compete in terms of which protocol is the most appropriate for a device or an application.

"Most of our customers choose [Wi-Fi] for printers," said Ray Martino, vice president of network products at Symbol Technologies Inc., also in San Jose, which is a customer of Intersil. "If Bluetooth gets a wide-enough acceptance, then it might make sense."

Bluetooth has been struggling for acceptance for more than three years but has gained new hope recently because of attention from Microsoft Corp. "Bill Gates announced that there will be native Bluetooth support in Windows XP," Silicon Waves Lyon said.

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