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Atheros triples Wi-Fi range to 1km

Fourth-gen chipsets knock back power consumption

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WLAN chipset maker Atheros today promised to eliminate zero-connection zones from homes and offices - and to provide radically extended range on public Wi-Fi hotspots - courtesy of its fourth-generation dual-band 802.11a/g product.

The AR5004 series of WLAN chipsets also deliver mobile-friendly much-reduced power consumption and enterprise-oriented client management features, the company claimed.

Central to Atheros' pitch is its eXtended Range (XR) technology. Today's Wi-Fi adaptors and base-stations can typically operate at distances of up to 100m before the signal falls beyond the sensitivity of both receivers. XR improves the sensitivity of the chipset's baseband component, from an 802.11 standard-mandated -80dB to -105dB, Dave Borison, Atheros' product line manager for the new chips, told The Register.

The upshot, he said, is that the dead spots encountered inside many buildings - where 802.11a, b or g signals are unable to penetrate the structure sufficiently strongly to maintain a connection. For locations with good line of sight, XR provides around three times the range of rival solutions.

Tested at Stanford University, said Borison, XR was able to eliminate dead spots in a "very tough environment - lots of concrete and metal". Though judging from the map provided by Atheros, better positioning of the one base station might have achieved a similar result. A few areas might still have been in 'shadow', however - XR would have illuminated them.

There's a catch, of course. Don't expect full 802.11a or g speeds. As with conventional 54Mbps parts, XR-based products will see a sharp fall off of through put with distance. The difference is that instead of a sudden dropping off at around 100m, there's a long tail off between 100m and 300m, indoors. In that range, throughput is typically what you'd expect from 802.11b.

"Depending on what environment you're in, you may or may not care about the throughput, but you want to make sure that you never lose connectivity," said Borison. Certainly 1Mbps at 300m is better than no throughput at that range - and still plenty of room for many broadband-connected systems.

But there's a second catch: the technology isn't standard. Borison described it euphemistically as "standards-plus", which is really another way of saying proprietary. Atheros' AR5004 series chipsets offer full 802.11a, b and g compatibility within expected ranges, but to go beyond that, you'll need support for XR at both the client and the base-station.

No problem, said Borison - plenty of access point and notebook vendors are rolling out the technology with their fourth-generation products. But it seems to us that there are still rather a lot who'll be using products from other chipset vendors - some big name vendors - Dell, Apple - among them. Many of the rest aren't exclusively signed to Atheros. And there's rather a lot of kit out there already that doesn't support this feature.

You can't blame Atheros for trying. With the 802.11b market now effectively commoditised, and one 802.11a/b/g part pretty much as good as any other, how else can they - and their rivals, for that matter - differentiate their products without stepping outside the IEEE's specifications?

The trouble is, it erodes the value of the standard - ie. multi-vendor compatibility - whenever proprietary technology is added on top of it. If Atheros literally owned the WLAN chipset market, that might not matter so much, but it doesn't, so it does.

And how many consumers are likely to read the small print attached to notebooks whose manufacturers claim will offer 54Mbps throughput and ranges of up to 300m indoors?

The technology's appeal to public hotspots owners, who might be tempted by its outdoor range of around 1km, is equally limited: can they justify rolling out a technology they can't be certain all of their customers can utilise?

Offering it as a service to owners of Atheros-based Wi-Fi adaptors is equally limited: how many users know what chipset their Dell, IBM, Toshiba, Apple or whatever laptop contains?

Atheros is likely to succeed better in the niche markets it's pursuing: home entertainment networks - which, says Borison, is "very focused" on 802.11a - and the enterprise space, where the benefits of 802.11a's higher speed and cleaner spectrum are more likely to be appreciated. But even though Atheros pretty much owns the 802.11a arena, that market is small compared to 802.11g, let alone the still massive 802.11b space.

Signs of the new chipsets' enterprise centricity are support for wake-on-(W)LAN and wake-on-theft. The former works with any access point from any vendor, and any management console. Wake-on-theft works by sending keepalive packets to a compatible base station also loaded with software that can transmit a warning to the management console when said packets cease - presumably because, like Elvis, the notebook has left the building.

XR does win plaudits for its power consumption profile. Atheros claims a 21 per cent reduction in the power required to transmit data, 30 per cent less to receive and 96 per cent less in idle mode than Intel's Centrino 802.11b adaptor. Borison admits the improvement isn't as much when compared with single-mode 802.11g parts, but it still makes for significant power savings which are likely to appeal to developers of mobile devices such as PDAs and smartphones. The benefits for battery life are clear.

And all this comes at no extra cost, said Borison. In fact, he said, the new chipsets are "slightly cheaper" than Atheros' previous generation of 802.11a/g parts. The company will offer two XR-based parts, the universal access 802.11a/b/g AR5004X, which provides full connectivity around the world, and the 802.11b/g AR5004G. Both chipsets will be shipping in volume from today. ®

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