It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Multimode World

By Kevin Reichard

April 23, 2002

Are 802.11 users destined to work in a multimode world? Wireless vendors are rushing to combine 802.11b technology with other competing wireless technologies -- including CDMA, GPRS, and Bluetooth. The end result will be wireless coverage that's not dependent on a local access point.

Are 802.11 users headed for a multimode future? Yes, if recent announcements by Intersil, a leading developer of silicon technology for wireless networks, is any indication.

Yesterday Intersil announced agreements for dual-mode chipsets, combining 802.11b technology with other wireless technologies. In the first agreement, GTRAN Wireless will take Intersil's 802.11b Prism technology and combine it with CDMA or GPRS wireless support on a single client card. In the second agreement -- first announced at Microsoft's WinHEC 2002 show and demonstrated by Microsoft officials -- Intersil and Silicon Wave unveiled Blue802 technology, which combines 802.11b and Bluetooth wireless technologies on a single platform.

These dual-mode announcements are not isolated in the 802.11 world: last month VoiceStream announced its intention to merge 80211 and 2.5G technologies into a single product offering.

The more notable of the two announcements is the Blue802 offering, as many in the computer industry argue that Bluetooth and 802.11 wireless technologies are mutually exclusive (as most end users will probably choose one over the other) and technically incompatible (both use the same spectrum space, which leads to potential interference between 802.11 and Bluetooth devices). But Intersil officials argue that the technologies are complimentary, not incompatible.

"80211 is a networking protocol, while Bluetooth is a wire-replacement technology," says Tim Godfrey, strategic marketing manager at Intersil. "We think that people will be wanting both in the future."

Blue802 is an embedded product designed for use in access points, notebook PCs, and other portable devices. Even though 802.11b and Bluetooth operate on the same frequency, Godfrey says that the Intersil/Silicon Wave chip design will avoid interference issues through a simple mechanism: the two technologies are automatically synced so that they will not be active at the same time.

Intersil and Silicon Wave will be releasing the reference specs shortly, and Godfrey expects that manufacturers will be shipping mini-PCI cards for notebook PCs in volume in the third quarter of this year.

As mentioned earlier, Blue802 was unveiled at a Microsoft wireless-technology conference, and Godfrey says that it fits squarely into Microsoft's "Soft Wi-Fi" plan, where more of the wireless processing is offloaded from specific devices and more into the operating system.

"We have been working very closely with Microsoft on this," Godfrey says. "They gave us constructive feedback on our design. In regards to Soft Wi-Fi, over time we will embrace and take advantage of that. We are a hardware manufacturer, and we can work with whatever the operating system requires."

The GTRAN Wireless announcement follows in the same vein: combining 802.11 technology with another wireless technology, in this case CDMA (used by cellular phones and other portable devices.

The GTRAN DotSurfer 5000 CDMA + Wi-Fi combo card can seamlessly move between Wi-Fi hot spots and areas served CDMA2000 1X cellular data technology. Similarly, the GTRAN DotSurfer 5500 GPRS + Wi-Fi combo card offers access to GSM/GPRS networks.

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