A Look at the 802.11 Chip Makers

By Eric Griffith

June 10, 2003

A new research report says the future holds single chip 802.11b/g solutions, tough times ahead for startups, and changes in who leads the market by next year (think 'Intel Inside').

The Linley Group, a technology analysis company covering networking silicon specifically from their headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., today released a report called "A Guide to Wireless LAN Chip Sets." It goes into specific analysis of eight major Wi-FI chip vendors -- Agere, Atheros, Atmel, Broadcom, Intersil, Marvell, RF Micro Devices and Texas Instruments (TI) with a complete chapter on each vendor-- and provides insight into who will likely be leading the market by this time next year.

Bob Wheeler, senior analyst at The Linley Group and the primary author of the report, says that one of the major conclusions they came to is that single chip 802.11g/b solutions -- those that combine the Media Access Control (MAC) , baseband (bb) , and radio/transceiver on a single chip -- are on the way. He says single chip solutions are going to "have a big impact on market adoption, and those with a full CMOS design will probably be the leaders."

According to Linley Group, the companies in the lead then with CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) designs are Broadcom and Atheros. Wheeler says designs using Silicon-Germanium (SiGe, pronounced "Siggy") like some from Intersil, or BiCMOS (bipolar CMOS) like that used by Agere/Infineon, aren't conducive to single chip solutions.

Wheeler also believes the power amplifier, which controls power output, is not something they expect to see integrated since they're quite cheap, though companies like Marvell are attempting it.

Wheeler believes that Atheros, with its older 0.25-micron CMOS process could suffer against Broadcom -- the latter uses a newer 0.18-micron CMOS technology. He says TI is the true dark horse here because the have a leading edge 0.13 micron process. However, TI doesn't sell a radio of its own, choosing instead to bundle other manufacturer's radios. That's likely to change, says Wheeler.

While the report goes in-depth on the companies concentrating on chips for Wi-Fi use, there are certainly up-and-comers to watch for in this space-- namely Intel and AMD. Intel's Centrino solution for notebooks, which is Intel's branding for laptops combining a Pentium-M processor with Wi-Fi chips provided by Intel (though manufactured, for now at least, by Philips and TI), is helping push Intel into a top slot. In fact, Wheeler says that the top provider of 802.11 chips will likely be Intel. Broadcom will likely be number two in the market long term, based on the success it's had getting vendors to support its 54g (802.11g) chips.

Startups like Bermai, Envara, and Synad are all going to have a tough time competing with the established players since they don't differentiate much. One exception to that is Engim. The company is developing chips, only for access points, which support up to three channels simultaneously, thus preventing any performance degradation when, for example, in a mixed mode 802.11b/g environment. It's more of a complimentary technology to current solutions than most startups offer.

Startups with the same old stuff as everyone else could be looking at getting acquired, though Wheeler says "there aren't a lot of companies left to acquire them. The two companies with potential to buy in are STMicroelectronics and Motorola," neither of which have jumped on the Wi-Fi band wagon as yet.

Qualcomm, which makes chips for cellular phones, has steadfastly stayed out of the wireless LAN side of things. Wheeler says "I don't think they've realized the potential impact of Wi-Fi. It wouldn't be unlikely that they'd wake up one day and see they have to do something." And out the check book will come.

The Linley Group's report is available now for $2,495.



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