Finding MIMO, Airgo Fishes for 100-Mbps Wi-Fi

Airgo Networks promises to double the speed and sextuple the range of wireless LANs while enhancing existing Wi-Fi networks. Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin observes that it's the kind of "can't miss" solution that unfortunately has alrea

In the race to push Wi-Fi even faster than existing standards can take it or than many people need it, Airgo Networks has enlisted big money and big names, attracting $52 million in funding and former executives from such networking companies as Agere and Cisco.

Airgo claims it has doubled the speed achieved with even 802.11a technology, boosting Wi-Fi to 108 Mbps when its chips are used in both the client and access point. In addition, the company claims that it has dramatically extended the range of Wi-Fi up to six fold, "pushing out" the curve to provide better performance as the signal degrades. Only independent benchmarks will be able to verify whether the company has taken liberties with its speed claims.

The secret sauce behind Airgos approach is MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output), an advanced signal processing method of combining multiple, inexpensive antennas to achieve greater throughput. MIMO (pronounced "my-mo") is so new that a Google search for "MIMO wireless" yields mostly academic papers on theory. Airgo engineers have been working on the technology, which can be extended to any kind of wireless network, since 1995, and have been the first to produce it at a practical cost. Airgos chipset will be compatible with all three major flavors of 802.11 WLAN technology. Ultimately, though, the company believes that every wireless device will use MIMO technology from it or another vendor.

So, will Airgos packets fly?

One potential barrier for customers is the proprietary nature of Airgos approach. The company, while working with the 802.11n working group toward 100-Mbps Wi-Fi, claims that it sees that standard as five years off, and that it is on a much different (and faster) project cycle. Covering its bets, it is compatible with all the headers in the draft standard.

Furthermore, Airgo is striving to play especially well with current standards; it claims having an Airgo chipset in your access point will improve the efficiency of all client devices for what it claims should translate to a $20 to $50 premium.

Still, jumping the gun is always risky, even if it wont be fired for a while. Before the widespread release of 802.11g, Texas Instruments introduced a 22-Mbps standard via its DSP technology that ultimately proved incompatible with 802.11g. TI found support with at least one major volume vendor in D-Link, but benchmarks found that the Wi-Fi extension fell far short of its speed claims and had inferior range.

Theres also competition. Airgo is clearly targeting whole-home video applications where Quality of Service is important. Canadian chipset vendor ViXS Systems has developed solutions to deliver smooth video over todays 54 Mbps networks. Ultimately, many experts believe that Ultra Wideband (UWB) will provide the best wireless solution for video distribution in the home. Airgo dismisses UWB as "too little, too late" and with too little range but concedes that a lot can happen in five years; thats around the time others predict UWB will be viable.

While Airgo says it already has some design wins, it hasnt yet announced customers. However, it plans to sell directly to end-user device companies that sell products like access points and PCs. If it lives up to its claims, Airgos MIMO technology can be a real differentiator, but may not be enough to stand out in a volatile commodity marketplace. Since its technology must be at both ends of the network to reach its full potential, Airgo may ultimately find better success in more controlled wireless markets, such as cellular, where there isnt such brutal retail pricing pressure.

Does Airgo sound like the key to high-speed Wi-Fi or are you willing to wait for new standards? E-mail me.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

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