Belkin Brings MIMO Home

By Eric Griffith

August 09, 2004

The company plans to get a drop on the 'Pre-N' (802.11n) market by shipping the first consumer products using chips from Airgo that support multiple antennas for better throughput and range.

Compton, Calif.-based Belkin is the first company making consumer products to use chipsets from Airgo Networks, a Palo Alto company that specializes in products that support multiple-input/multiple-output (MIMO). MIMO is virtually guaranteed to be the driving force in the future 802.11n specification to increase wireless throughput to as much as 100 Megabits per second (Mbps).

It's because of that fact that Belkin's newest products -- a $179 router and $129 CardBus network card for laptops, expected to be available October 15-- will be marketed under the name Wireless Pre-N.

Belkin says the new products will have 200% greater coverage and speed than current 802.11g products, but will be fully backwards compatible.

This sort of move has happened before: months before the 54Mbps 802.11g standard was finished, many products were shipped that supported the technology that was to become the final 11g specification. Most of those products were upgradeable via firmware updates to the final 11g spec. However, that's not a claim Belkin and Airgo can make with these new products, since the final 11n specification could be years away.

Enterprise customers are known for waiting for specifications to be finalized before buying products, but that hasn't been a problem with the consumer market -- if the pre-11g sales were any indication.

Eric Deming, product manager at Belkin, says the company is "not worried about a Pre-N name backlash," because "we do know the key ingredient [of 802.11n] will be MIMO. This technology incorporates MIMO."

It actually incorporates what chip maker Airgo has branded "True MIMO." Airgo's CEO, Greg Raleigh, says it uses that brand "so people will understand this is the real thing. This isn't a loose interpretation for PR -- this is the first real MIMO." Raleigh authored papers on MIMO almost a decade ago. He has been running the company to build on that theoretical technology, which he says uses multipath -- long a problem with wireless signals -- to the wireless LAN's advantage.

Initial proposals for the 11n standard have yet to even be examined by the IEEE 802.11 Working Group. Airgo is leading one of the groups (World Wide Spectrum Efficiency, or WWiSE) pushing MIMO as a backbone of the 802.11n specification.

The other group, TGn Sync, which includes Agere, Intel, Atheros and others, also plan to put MIMO technology in the spec, but with some differences in implementation. The IEEE won't even begin discussing the standard until its next meeting in September.

Belkin's Deming admits that other products exist that can get the speeds this Pre-N line promises, but says that those products "use channel bonding, and they can't do that mode when other clients come into the system." He's referring to a controversial technology from chip maker Atheros , which was accused by rival Broadcom of crippling some products on the same network -- mainly those with Broadcom chips. In addition, studies have shown that mixing 54Mbps 802.11g with 11Mbps 802.11b, even though both use the same 2.4GHz radio band, can cause a performance hit.

Deming says that won't happen with Belkin Pre-N products. "If you have a MIMO client and router, they'll go to 108Mbps; but a G client will just use 54Mbps -- the 108Mbps client is still connected. Same with 11b clients."

Each of the Belkin products has multiple antennas, three receivers and two transmitters, to utilize the MIMO functions which send multiple data streams on the same channel.

Atheros recently announced a wireless chipset for use in multimedia products that would support multiple antennas. Airgo's Raleigh, however, says what his competition is doing isn't really MIMO, but is simply using smart antenna beam-forming technology.

"By definition, MIMO has to supply multiple data sets in the same channel," he says.

Whether any of the technological semantics will matter to the public remains to be seen -- chances are, it'll sell as long as it goes faster and doesn't break the bank.



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