Intel Readies its 802.11 Gambit

By Michael Singer

November 07, 2002

The No. 1 chipmaker sets its sights on advancing wireless roaming, deploying more Wi-Fi hotspots and putting its Banias chip in the majority of laptops, all by 2004.

SAN FRANCISCO -- When Intel rolls out its wireless-specific processor (named Banias) in the first part of next year, it will mark a milestone in its long-term strategy to get people to think mobile.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company has already invested millions in wireless technologies like 802.11 (also known as Wi-Fi ), but the company is also planning ahead to the future of wireless networking much in the same way that it helped develop the Ethernet standard in the 80s and 90s.

At a press briefing Wednesday, Intel reaffirmed its 802.11 strategy saying it is looking forward to 2004. That's when the company predicts its "intelligent" wireless roaming will be an established technology, the number of Wi-Fi hotspots should triple and a 90 percent of laptops will have 802.11wireless LAN capabilities, hopefully with its Banias chip.

"I believe the key to our success in wireless will be home users," said Intel vice president Jim Johnson, who explained that as people are taking their laptops home from work they want to be able to be able to roam from the office to the train to their homes without interruptions. "We have a wireless network at our house and my son is all over the place with my wife's laptop."

Intel said it will support all of the 802.11 flavors through its processors like Banias and also by its 802.11 a b/g chipsets like Calexico, which the company says should ship by the first quarter of 2003. Intel's Canias CPU and Odem/Montara-GM chipset also look to play pivotal roles. The company is also helping push the technology forward by reducing the amount of heat the chips put out and increasing battery life.

Johnson said the current shift in wireless security standards from WEP to WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) may or may not be a part of Banias' architecture.

"It's a timing issue," Johnson told "Much of it depends on how fast the new standard can be approved. Either way, the changeover is a simple process of changing software and drivers."

WPA's long-term replacement, 802.11i, is still on a path to be complete about this time next year with a fully ratified standard, according to the IEEE.

The new wireless safety standards will be paramount considering the amount of wireless hotspots Intel says should be available around the world.

According to research firm BWCS, Nextel and it own numbers, Intel says there should be upwards of 30,000 hotspots established by 2003 and close to 120,000 neighborhood zones set up by 2006. Current estimates point to about 20,000 places around the globe that people can get wireless access.

"A lot of this is a local phenomenon, but we see the growth in this area in the same way that roaming for mobile phones was a gradual process," said Johnson. "It won't take war chalking, but it will take cooperation. A lot of this will be engineered not at the center but at the edges."

But while tapping into your local hotspot like those offered by Starbucks is all well and good, Intel is currently testing "intelligent" wireless roaming" to let you walk between hotspots without losing your connection.

"What we see is seamless networks in the next two years OEMs will have functions available said Intel Marketing Development manger Roxane Gryder. "This means you will have to inter network. You need security and you need auto sensors to get you to the biggest pipe for the cheapest price."

Intel said crucial to the success of intelligent wireless roaming will be cooperation between standards bodies and companies, starting with small alliances such as a possible alliance between AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless, Verizon Communications, Intel and IBM called Project Rainbow.

Intel's R&D labs are currently working on rolling out a "802.11 Last Mile" answer to remote locations like a small town or rural area that have problems getting either satellite or cable broadband access.

Instead of a phased-array solution, Intel said it is using wireless Internet service providers (WISP) to establish a hotspot at the Hillsboro airport in Oregon. Fifteen houses are signed up for the test. Intel said it could accommodate about 25 per transmitter. The pilot program covers a 20-mile radius.

The company's R&D division is also testing a home multi-hop networking strategy it calls "Meshing."

The idea is to network home computers, desktop computers, cameras and even other consumer products like televisions, VCRs, DVDs and personal video recorders (like TiVo or Replay) by bouncing signals off of 802.11 repeaters strategically located near power sources like outlets or light fixtures.

Intel said it is wrapping up its lab testing and should be running pilot programs next year.

Nearly two weeks ago, Intel said it would spend $150 million in the next two to three years investing in some 30 different companies, mostly startups in the middle of their Series A or B round of funding as well as fixed line carriers and wireless carriers to advance Wi-Fi. The money will come from Intel's previously established $500 million Communications Fund.

Intel continues to hold the lion's share in just about every other semiconductor category and said it expects its chips to compete heavily with AMD's new Alchemy series.

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