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Economist rekindles open access chip debate

An unlikely open source champion

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Chipmakers always face the dilemma of whether to open up their designs, increasing their market reach as well as placating the open source movement, or whether to keep their prime asset, their intellectual property (IP), close to their chests. Intel has come under much fire in the past for its hesitancy in supporting open source Linux on the Centrino chipset, but it claimed it could only support open source drivers if it was confident its intellectual property would be protected.

Now an unlikely open source champion, The Economist, has stepped up the pressure on chipmakers to open up. In a headline article, the magazine accuses Atheros and Broadcom, in particular, of failing to spur growth in Wi-Fi uptake by sharing technology, particularly with community and open source projects.

In fact, Atheros had made more progress than Intel (or Broadcom) in this respect, at least supporting Linux, protecting IP through a hardware abstraction layer or bridge, that protects the software defined radio while being accessible to open source drivers. However, The Economist argues that, by keeping low level radio functions secret, Broadcom and Atheros – the Wi- Fi market leaders – are discouraging wider uses of their chips and suppressing interesting projects from community wireless networking groups such as CuWIN.

CuWIN (the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network) aims to support selfconfiguring, mesh-based Wi-Fi networks using standard, old PCs with no set-up required. The basic unit could be a 486 or later PC with a bootable CD-Rom or floppy drive. Once booted, a PC finds other similar units automatically and forms a mesh. This low cost approach could be applied to developing nations and poor communities and the group is working with the Open Society Initiative and the Soros Foundation Network to create a resource guide for emerging economies that covers all the key issues for building a wireless network - regulation, configuration and installation – and how to make the use of outdated equipment feasible through software such as the CuWIN system, now in beta release.

Such projects are vital to economic development, but are dependent on programmers being able to access the chip technology and make it usable with Linux and other low cost technologies, says The Economist. Otherwise, innovation will be stifled in the wireless world, setting it behind the more open wired one. When CuWIN requested interface information from chipmakers, Broadcom and Atheros refused and other community initiatives, such as SeattleWireless and NYCwireless, have had similar problems, and are calling on regulators to enforce open access in the interests of stimulating wireless growth.

Broadcom and Atheros responded that making the interface information public would be illegal, because companies could change chip parameters – frequency or power, for instance – and so violate the rules of unlicensed bands. However, the projects claim they are only looking for interface information, not data on how the chip itself works, and that the FCC rules would apply only to the SDR component used in more sophisticated chipsets, which could still be protected.

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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