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Broadcom bites back against Intel-Mobilian, Atheros

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Broadcom was the star of the WLAN chip market in the early part of this year, stealing a march on all its rivals with its successful gamble on leaping into the 802.11g market even before the standard was finalized. This helped it to gain a significant lead over Intel, which is still to implement ‘g’ in Centrino, and to position itself to take a top two position – coming from almost nowhere in 2002 – in the sector.

But the WLAN silicon space is becoming very crowded and under intense price pressure. Low cost Taiwanese manufacturers are helping to spark a price spiral in 802.11b chips and even ‘g’ devices are heading for the commodity category. This is putting Broadcom on the defensive. Its major rival, Intersil, has been acquired by GlobespanVirata and that company,
in turn, by Conexant, creating a direct competitor to Broadcom in most of its key markets, with a similar market weight and level of resources. Atheros, the other WLAN chip major, was wrongfooted by Broadcom’s focus on ‘g’ and its own early adherence to the other fast Wi-Fi standard, 802.11a, but the company is biting back with some innovative work in ‘standards-plus’ products that boost Wi-Fi performance over 100Mbps. And of course, Intel is coming up behind, with ‘a’ support already launched in Centrino and ‘g’ around the corner, and with its new purchase of Mobilian, which specializes in Bluetooth/Wi-Fi integration.

All this means that Broadcom no longer has the market to itself and it has a delicate balancing act to draw between supporting standards, which will be essential to capture a good share of the expected enterprise WLAN boom of 2004, and creating well differentiated products.

The company’s actions this week highlight both its creative side, with a pioneering product for close Bluetooth/Wi-Fi coexistence that responds neatly to Intel’s Mobilian purchase; and its defensiveness, joining the crowd of vendors that criticize Atheros’ ‘standards-plus’ activities, with claims that the Atheros technology degrades performance of other WLAN devices.

InConcert

A week after Intel acquired Mobilian, with a view to integrating Bluetooth and Wi-Fi within the Centrino family, Broadcom announced InConcert, technology to allow devices based on its Bluetooth or 802.11 chips to share the 2.4GHz frequency range with minimal interference, synchronizing transmissions to optimize throughput.

InConcert consists of software that will reside in Broadcom’s Blutonium Bluetooth system firmware and OneDriver WLAN driver. Any device that uses both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi chips enabled with InConcert will automatically synchronize its wireless transmissions to avoid interference.

Broadcom sees InConcert as central to its strategy of offering silicon for converged handsets and other devices supporting multiple wireless networks. The company recently launched AirForceOne, a single-chip, compact Wi-Fi implementation also aimed at such multimode devices.

Interference is one of the key obstacles to such handsets becoming viable and the chipmakers are seeking to solve the problem in different ways.

The initial approach was Adaptive Frequency Hopping (AFH), which Broadcom already supports. This is a standard feature of the newest Bluetooth specification, 1.2, but is mainly designed to minimize interference from other devices in the 2.4GHz band, such as cordless phones and wireless camcorders. However, it is not sufficient to prevent problems in integrated PCs or handsets that support Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. While Broadcom has implemented its solution in software – though with no indication yet of whether this will drag down network performance at all – Intel’s new acquisition, Mobilian, supports similar synchronization capabilities, but at chip level, as part of its TrueRadio technology. It claims that deploying at silicon level will avoid performance trade-offs. However,Texas Instruments, which announced its own Bluetooth/Wi-Fi platform in June, claims that TrueRadio has some antenna spacing problems and says that only TI offers a total systems approach. Another rival is Blue802 from Intersil and Silicon Wave.

TI addresses the problem with a three-wire coexistence bus controlled by an algorithm on the WLAN MAC, which prioritizes Bluetooth and WLAN packets. It says this is an interim solution until coexistence standards emerge within the IEEE 802.15.2 project, which TI supports and helps to shape. Its new technology is the first to come under the Wanda handset concept outlined in March. This promises eventually to combine Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, cellular and global positioning systems in to one unit without interference.

All this indicates the accelerating race by the communications chipmakers to gain differentiation and a window, however small, in which they can take a leading position. If Texas has the lead in Bluetooth/Wi-Fi, Broadcom undoubtedly took advantage first of the emergence of 802.11g, and is now seen trying to protect its lead as rivals such as Atheros move into the space.

Accusations against Atheros

This week, to coincide with the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, Nevada, Broadcom attacked Atheros for being a ‘bad neighbour’ in wireless networks, claiming Atheros’ Super G technology degrades the performance of nearby Wi-Fi links.

Atheros has been seeking to compensate for its lateness into ‘g’ by launching souped-up WLAN products, boosting performance to up to 108Mbps. It achieves this using Turbo mode in its SuperG technology, which is used in 802.11g adapters and gateways from D-Link and Netgear, among others. But it is this kit that Broadcom claims is causing problems for other devices within range.

Nearby 802.11g networks, even on different frequencies, may drop in performance to as little as 1Mbps in the vicinity of SuperG, claims Broadcom’s vice president of marketing, Jeff Abramowitz.

Atheros’ CEO, Craig Barratt, denies the claims and says SuperG causes no more performance degradation than any other ‘g’ device, while D-Link, which uses chips from both vendors, told journalists investigating the claims for PC World that its internal tests showed no more degradation caused by its Atheros-based XtremeG products than any other. Whatever the truth of the test results, there is an air of a cornered lion about Broadcom’s behavior, and the incident is highlighting again the persistent issue of standards-plus Wi-Fi.

Broadcom itself, although the first company into the ‘g’ mass market, has been slower to adopt souped-up technology and is one of the few silicon makers not to offer a 100Mbpsplus solution. This has helped Atheros to gain some market share points from its rival, especially in the dial-band a/g sector, where the company’s strength in 802.11a has been valuable.

But most turbocharged Wi-Fi devices will work at their maximum speed only with equipment from the same vendor, and this lack of interoperability has led to various parties, most notably Intel, criticising companies such as Atheros for seeking to lock in users and fragment the 802.11x standard. SuperG has not been accredited by the Wi-Fi Alliance, which controls interoperability testing for 802.11x, although the body has certified D-Link’s XtremeG PC card and is currently testing the XtremeG access point.

SuperG uses three techniques to achieve its performance hike. Turbo mode is the one at issue, since it can directly affect other devices. The others are frame bursting, a method used by most Wi-Fi chipmakers to speed data rates by rebuilding 802.11b packets into longer, more efficient ones; and compression. These two techniques will be incorporated into the 802.11e extension for multimedia streaming.

All eyes will be on a promised demonstration at Comdex to see whether Broadcom can reproduce its results. If so, SuperG licensees may be forced to recall equipment, issue firmwareupgrades or disable Turbo mode. All of which highlights the ongoing problem with Wi-Fi, which has been clear ever since Broadcom led the way to launching pre-standard 802.11g chips earlier this year, leading to fears of non-interoperable legacy kit. The sector is so competitive, and prices are falling so rapidly, that vendors will go to great lengths to achieve a competitive advantage, sometimes at the expense of the standard and the users’ best interests.

© Copyright 2003 Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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