Intel Wireless Chip Sets to Roam Wi-Fi and Cellular Networks

The company will announce its Wi-Fi-to-cellular roaming strategy in the fall as roadmaps show a "wireless WAN" chip due in 2005. Forthcoming 10GHz technology supports Wi-Fi and 3G cellular connections.

PALO ALTO, Calif.—Intel Corp.s communications chief tempered expectations of a future "Radio Free Intel" project, warning that it will be some time until a single chip will be able to access a variety of wireless networks and cellular services.

However, an Intel spokesman said an announcement on the companys Wi-Fi-to-cellular roaming strategy is expected in two months time, and roadmaps presented here at a wireless analysts meeting on Friday showed that the company would release a "wireless WAN" chip in 2005.

In addition, the director of Intels communications lab disclosed that the company has implemented a 10GHz frequency synthesizer in CMOS silicon, a key step on the way to building a hybrid controller for both Wi-Fi and cellular networks.

With a 10-GHz synthesizer, Intels processor will handle both the 5GHz bands required by 802.11a and 802.11g Wi-Fi radios as well as the lower frequencies used by the next-generation 3G protocols.

"Were taking the approach that 10GHz covers all the bands of interest, said Krishnamurthy Soumyanath, director of the communications and circuits lab at Intel.

The concept of a "Radio Free Intel" was first introduced in the fall of 2001, when Intels chief technology officer Pat Gelsinger described the concept as his personal research crusade. The concept includes several components, including smart antennas, regulatory reforms, and a CMOS-based reconfigurable radio.

His idea was that a radio could be programmed via software to tune into a variety of wireless networks that use different frequencies, such as 802.11a, 802.11b, and cellular networks like W-CDMA.

However, Sean Maloney, executive vice president and general manager of Intels communications group, said the concept of a reconfigurable radio "superchip" was now considered unlikely. "Im trying to not sound like a hippie, but I think that it is the journey, not the destination," he said.

Maloney said that the concept of a software-defined radio is not dead, but that the company was leaning more towards "flexible" radios, the implication being that Intel instead will try to cover a relatively limited range of spectrum with one chip.

Mike Chartier, the companys director of spectrum policy, also used the term "flexible", claiming that the company was working with the International Telecommunications Union to develop local rules that would govern the flexible radio technology by next year.

Executives from Intels wireless and mobile computing business discussed Intels strategy on several fronts here, including lobbying efforts to free up wireless spectrum, improvements in the design of mobile PCs, as well as a report by Intels resident anthropologist on the impact of mobile devices on Asian society.

Beginning with Intels "Unwired" advertising campaign surrounding its Centrino wireless platform, Intel has made wireless communications a key element of its evolving business model. The companys lofty goals have contrasted with its execution, however, as the Intel Communications Group has reported a string of unprofitable quarters.

Furthermore, although Intels Centrino dominates the thin-and-light notebook platform, most early Centrino notebooks shipped with third-party Wi-Fi chip sets. Intel also delayed the wireless daughtercard associated with its Intel 915 or "Grantsdale" chip sets, which analysts interpreted as a lack of available radios.

Rob Crooke, Intels vice president of the desktop platforms group, explained away the chipsets delay by claiming that its year-long development time "didnt allow enough time to test the user experience" and that the chipset would be ramped during the second half of this year.

/zimages/3/28571.gifRead more here about Intels delays for the Centrino 2 processor.

Hybrid Wi-Fi chips are nothing new, microprocessor analysts have observed, noting that Intel has been slower to market with these products than its competitors. In addition, Taiwan chip vendors with low cost chips are now entering the market with home-grown Wi-Fi chip designs, whose entrance has traditionally been a death knell for profit margins in the electronics industry.

Meanwhile, a number of other Intel wireless efforts have begun, seemingly in isolation. Intels other maturing wireless line lies in handheld wireless networks, developing applications processors that can be used in PDAs and smartphones.

In the past, Gelsinger has described an environment where a laptop user would surf on a Wi-Fi network at work or in a café, and seamlessly shifting to a cellular network while driving down the highway.

However, Intel sidestepped the IEEE standards body in developing a short-range UWB (ultrawideband) standard, and has been the chief promoter of WiMax, a next-generation wireless broadband standard which will slowly emerge in the next few years.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read about barriers to WiMax adoption.

Soumyanath said that Intel is working on sort of a reverse-branching design path, where various functions are integrated over time. For example, Intel and other companies have designed discrete 802.11b chips, then later added other Wi-Fi functions as 802.11a.

Intels 802.11a/g wireless components are now being sampled by OEMs, and will ship in products this fall, according to Jim Johnson, vice president and general manager of wireless networking for Intels Communications Group.

Next Page: Hybrid chipsets, 10GHz-band support on the way