Agere refocuses on Wi-Fi

Head-to-head with Atheros in search for speed

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Agere is the latest firm to introduce a semi-proprietary, turbocharged Wi-Fi chipset anticipate the 108Mbps standard expected in two years' time. The company is trying to make up for its recent dormant state in the WLAN business, and is claiming peak rates of 150Mbps.

The battle for differentiation in the increasingly commoditised Wi-Fi chip market increasingly rests on providing 'standards-plus' speeds. This is despite the fact that few can make use of such rates in the key consumer market because of backhaul limitations. In-home networks are an exception

Hard on Agere's heels came Atheros - one of the doyens of the turbo Wi-Fi sector - with tweaks to further improve the performance of its SuperG platform. All of this, coupled with January announcements from GlobespanVirata (now Conexant) of 140Mbps technology from its Intersil unit, will put increased pressure on

Broadcom, the leader in 802.11g chips, to respond, possibly by repeating its early leap into 'g' with plans for pre-standard 802.11n in 2005.

Lucent spin-off Agere, which was once a leader in Wi-Fi chips, has been quiet in this area since it sold its WLAN equipment business and said last autumn that Wi-Fi had not been a growth area for it in 2003.

Packet bursting

It now seems determined to change all that, with the announcement of a variety of methods for speeding up its silicon, which should be available as firmware upgrades in midyear. Its Wave-LAN 802.11a/b/g chips will receive a software overlay that uses a mixture of heightened receiver sensitivity, packet bursting, compression and quality of service (QoS) techniques to boost throughput. An important milestone for standards-plus silicon will be the ratification of the 802.11e QoS standard in the early autumn, and many of the current technologies will then be tweaked to ensure support. QoS aids fast throughput by prioritising different types of traffic.

Like most standards-plus technologies, the fast rates can only be achieved if both client and access point contain the Agere silicon. Agere has shunned the channel bonding turbo technique favoured by Atheros for Super G, but which has been criticised by rivals such as Broadcom for allegedly causing interference with nearby WLANs.

The company, which has mainly sold its Wi-Fi chips to enter-prise focused equipment makers, said it will also be targeting its strong sectors of embedded products and PDAs. It recognises that, for access points and PC clients, enterprises are wary of non-standard gear, but has no plans to make a major bid for the consumer territory with its downward price spiral.

One reason for the reawakened interest in advanced Wi-Fi may be Agere's disappointing performance in 3G chipsets. The company has reduced its forecast for its second quarter, blaming lower than expected 3G silicon shipments, largely because of the slow roll-out by 3G operator Hutchison.

3G downturn

The Lucent spin-off - which last November reported its first quarterly profit since going public in March 2001 - had already said it would go back into the red in first quarter of fiscal 2004, because of restructuring costs, but now expects only break-even or one cent per share earnings even without considering one-off charges. In January it had predicted one to two cents per share excluding charges.

The company warned that second quarter shipments of 3G chip-sets would be down by about $50m on Q1, a steeper decline than anticipated.

In the fourth quarter of 2003, Agere made net income of $11m on revenues up 2.6 per cent to $504m, with the gains mainly driven by strong sales of non-3G cellphone chips and hard disk drives. For the fiscal year, it reported a net loss of $338m, reduced from $1.81bn the year before, on revenues of $1.84bn, down from $1.92bn.

Atheros cranks up Wi-Fi again

Atheros has added new 'adaptive bandwidth' technology to the pot-pourri of performance enhancing techniques it applies to SuperG and claims the new Dynamic Turbo mode provides average real world throughput of 60Mbps or three times that of 802.11g. The main techniques used are compression, large frames and packet bursting, plus the controversial channel bonding. Dynamic Turbo also has enhanced ability to monitor and share available spectrum, Atheros claimed.

The row over whether SuperG degrades performance of nearby devices drags on, with the Wi-Fi Alliance failing to take a strong stand. It has made no specific comments on SuperG and has not refused to certify such products, as long as they can also work in standard 'g' mode and, in that mode, interoperate with other vendors' gear.

This attitude by the certification body seems to have encouraged Atheros OEM D-Link to launch equipment based on SuperG in Europe as well as the US, a decision it had previously put on ice. D-Link uses the products in its XtremeG PC card and XtremeG access point, which have been certified in normal mode by the Alliance.

In January, GlobespanVirata released products that achieve theoretical speeds of 140Mbps through its Intersil unit's Prism Nitro platform. The only Wi-Fi major with no turbocharged offering is now Intel, which has steadfastly refused to diverge from the pure standard.

© Copyright 2004 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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