Vendor Plan Puts 802.11n Deadline in Doubt

By Ed Sutherland

September 14, 2005

Intel and other chipmakers may be hatching a 'secret' plan that could delay the high-speed wireless standard, giving them a chance to catch up to Airgo.

Yet another power struggle has erupted over control of 802.11n, Wi-Fi’s high-speed next-generation standard. Chipmakers caught flat-footed by the success of pre-standard products are poised to launch a counter-offensive, effectively delaying ratification by up to six months, industry sources tell Wi-Fi Planet.

An alliance, composed of number one Wi-Fi chip producer Intel and second place Broadcom, along with Atheros and Marvell, intends to offer the IEEE an alternative in November to a unified plan that everyone expected would be approved by the standards body, clearing the way for a draft specification by year’s end.

The alternate proposal also throws into doubt approval of a unified plan expected to break a months-long logjam between the proposed standard’s two main competitors. The controversial Intel plan likely will split votes, denying a merged proposal the 75 percent needed for approval by the IEEE Task Group N, according to analysts.

Real Differences or ‘Hot Air’?

According to public comments by Marvell, the joint effort of the World Wide Spectrum Efficiency (WWiSE) and TGn Sync, which merged in July, don’t meet the needs of laptop manufacturers or handset designers, and don't reflect the OEM market.

So far, Marvell is the only coalition member providing any reasons why a second plan is needed. Dave Hofer, Marketing Director of Intel’s Wireless Networking Group, in March called the technical differences “a non-issue.”

The plan has nothing to do with technical differences, says one industry analyst who asked to remain unnamed. The explanation is “a lot of hot air” disguising “an effort to swing power back to incumbents,” according to the analyst.

Intel and Broadcom refuse to comment specifically. Atheros, while not addressing the charges, did attempt one rationale: the danger of pre-standard 11n. The chip manufacturer said there is “confusion among customers created by the proliferation of proprietary pre-802.11n products.”

The IEEE standards process is “unforgiving in terms of time,” Paramesh Gopi, General Manager of Marvell’s Embedded and Emerging Business Unit, told EE Times. “We might as well get it settled offline,” Gopi said.

The Airgo Equation

Although the companies contend that their differences are all technical, much discussion is devoted to Airgo Networks, the current leader in shipping MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) products. At the heart of any eventual 802.11n standard will be the multi-antenna MIMO technology.

Marvell chides Airgo for being in a “retail mindset” and not having a clue how to implement 802.11n for handsets.

Airgo is the only company producing MIMO chips, says Phil Solis of ABI Research. “Airgo has the whole market,” according to Solis. (Companies like Atheros and Video 54 sell products that they call MIMO.)

Recently, Airgo announced that its second-generation MIMO chipset would be embedded in Samsung’s laptops. Intel's Centrino chipset is largely responsible for that company's leading position in the Wi-Fi market. Airgo’s chips have also found their way into products from Belkin, Netgear and the Cisco-owned Linksys. Cisco has 59 percent of the enterprise WLAN market; Linksys leads the consumer market.

Some vendors sell these products as so-called “pre-N,” though the practice seems to be dying down after Belkin's second-generation Airgo products dropped the nomenclature.

Both Intel and Broadcom have had their hands tied in the MIMO market. Broadcom, after rumors were floated that it might duplicate its success with a draft 11g chip, promised it wouldn’t sell draft 11n silicon in 2004. Intel “is probably kicking itself” over a pledge not to offer products before a standard is settled, according to one CEO involved in the 11n deliberations.

Although Intel has announced it could produce 11a/b/g/n chips using a standard CMOS process, it’s been banking on 2007 as the date for the standard’s ratification. A possible breakthrough from the joint proposal and talk of Airgo becoming a “de facto standard” may worry the chip giant, according to insiders.

“It has to be a threat to Intel,” says Solis. “It would be to their advantage to delay the process. ”

Airgo is “building a lot of mindshare,” says Solis, something Broadcom used to have when it captured a lead in the 11g market by offering chips based on a draft of the standard. “But Airgo is doing it much earlier.”

Triple-Digit 11n Sales at Stake

The stakes are enormous. Analysts agree that 11n portends the largest advance since 11b’s introduction. Chip sales will skyrocket 128 percent from $11 million for pre-N last year to $653 million in 2009, according to Forward Concepts. Shipments will jump 140 percent from 530,000 units in 2004 to more than 42 million in four years, says analyst Will Strauss.

“MIMO is clearly the future,” says Craig Mathias, principal of the Farpoint Group. “You won’t be able to buy anything but MIMO” within the next 14 months, he says. Gigabit wireless speeds are in reach with MIMO, Mathias believes. And any Intel intervention, while stalling the 802.11n standard, will actually give more life to proprietary products, he says.

Solis sees 802.11g taking over the low-end wireless market now occupied by 11b. Additionally, “11n will be what 11a/g was supposed to be,” he says.

“A six-month delay won’t kill anything,” assures Ellen Daley, a Forrester Research analyst focusing on the enterprise market. Daley believes increased VoIP in enterprises will drive 11n in the corporate sector. Daley sees enterprise-based 11n taking off on late 2007.

“They need to get this process moving,” Yankee Group analyst Nicole Crane tells Wi-Fi Planet. “The more [Wi-Fi companies] stall, the more it will hurt their business.”



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