WLAN Scene Shrinks

WLAN chips on way; Intersil sell-off heats up market.

As the wireless LAN industry consolidates, competition is heating up and spawning a host of new WLAN options.

For starters, several PC makers in September will begin shipping notebooks equipped with Atheros Communications Inc.s mini-PCI cards that support 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g—the troika of IEEE WLAN standards—according to Atheros officials.

Intel Corp., currently Atheros top competitor, manufactures the popular Centrino chip set with the slower 802.11b technology built in. (802.11g runs in the 2.4GHz band with 802.11b, while 802.11a runs in the 5GHz band.)

"We dont intend to give up the laptop market to Intel," said Craig Barratt, president and CEO of Atheros, in Sunnyvale, Calif. "Theirs is more of a marketing contest than a silicon contest."

Where the Wireless Chips Fall

  • Atheros reports that PC licensees will release dual-band, tri-mode notebooks in September
  • Intel says the Centrino 802.11a/b chip set is due to licensees this quarter, and the Centrino 802.11b/g chip set is due next year
  • Broadcom introduces the BCM4712 system on a chip, which allows for smaller access points and routers
  • Intersil is selling its WLAN component business to GlobespanVirata
Intel does have plans for the Centrino beyond 802.11b, but they are behind Atheros schedule.

Company officials said a b/g Centrino should ship early next year and an a/b Centrino should ship this quarter. An a/b/g Centrino is expected in the first half of next year, said Dan Francisco, a spokesman for Intel, in San Jose, Calif.

Broadcom Corp. is also ahead of Intel in the WLAN alphabet race. In the coming months, some of Broadcoms licensees plan on offering 802.11g mini-PCI card upgrades for existing Centrino laptops, according to officials at Broadcom, in Irvine, Calif. Currently, several PC makers sell notebooks that use Intels Pentium M processor with a Broadcom radio.

Intersil Corp., meanwhile, announced earlier this month plans to sell its wireless networking product group to fellow chip maker GlobespanVirata Inc. The deal is due to close this quarter.

Intersil licensee Cisco Systems Inc. has finished its co-development work on its 802.11g access points, which are on target to be released next quarter, according to company officials, in San Jose.

Cisco continues to work with Intersils client-side competitors on the CCX (Cisco Compatible Extensions) Program; Cisco provides free licenses for WLAN technology that includes security, management and roaming features not yet found in IEEE standards but which Cisco has added to its own products.

CCX is free to client-side licensees, but Intels sudden and sizable presence in the client-side WLAN space and Ciscos domination of the back end has led to speculation that Intel is trying to get a leg up on other CCX licensees, especially considering its founding role in CCX.

CCX should be a boon to customers that have found that Cisco access points are not compatible with other companies clients, especially in terms of security.

"We were planning on doing just WEP [Wired Equivalent Privacy], which seemed like the simplest thing to do, but we discovered that WEP is not WEP is not WEP," said Jorge Abellas-Martin, an eWEEK Corporate Partner and senior vice president and CIO of Arnold Worldwide Inc., an advertising agency in Boston. "It doesnt always interoperate." Abellas-Martin fixed the problem by turning off the security in the Cisco access point and routing the traffic through a security appliance from Bluesocket Inc.