Airgo Bought Out by Qualcomm

By Eric Griffith

December 04, 2006

Which company does the acquisition help more? Plus: Airgo announces Draft 2.0 11n chips before Draft 2.0 is even done.

Airgo Networks, the privately owned chip maker that helped usher in MIMO technology to Wi-Fi products, helping pave the way for the upcoming 802.11n standard, has been purchased by Qualcomm. In addition, Qualcomm has also purchased the Bluetooth technology assets of RF Micro Devices (RFMD).

The purchases put CDMA-based cellular phone chip giant Qualcomm squarely into the wireless LAN and PAN business. The plan is to continue to support Airgo’s Wi-Fi chips and also to integrate the MIMO (multiple in, multiple out) technology into Qualcomm’s Mobile Station Modem chip sets and Snapdragon platform.

Both purchases should close before the end of 2006. Financial details on the Airgo deal were not disclosed; the RFMD Bluetooth buy cost US$39 million.

Coinciding with the announcement, Airgo said that it is making available its fourth generation of True MIMO-branded chips. The new chip is called the AGN400 and the company claims it is compliant with Draft 2.0 of 802.11n. That’s a unique feat since Draft 2.0 has yet to be approved by the IEEE 802.11n Task Group.

Airgo’s CEO Greg Raleigh — now Qualcomm’s vice president of wireless connectivity — told Wi-Fi Planet that the AGN400 can claim Draft 2.0 compliance because it will essentially cover all the bases of what the IEEE is currently discussing for the specification.

“We’ve had a year of debate and negotiation in the IEEE,” says Raleigh. In that time, lots of features have been introduced as possibilities for 802.11n and Airgo plans to support just about everything that’s come up. In fact, he says Airgo argued to include most of them while some other vendors argued to have features taken out.

What of any new features that might come along for Draft 2.0 between now and the final vote?

“It’s exceedingly unlikely that there will be new things we didn’t anticipate. All the chip makers are there and trending toward what’s in 2.0. If someone threw a curve now, it would attack the whole industry,” says Raleigh. “It would be out of bounds of the process to suggest a brand new idea.”

The timing of the AGN400 — sampling now and in vendor products by the Spring of 2007 — is specifically being coordinated with the previously announced plans by the Wi-Fi Alliance to test 802.11n Draft 2.0 products for interoperability with each other and legacy 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi products.

Airgo’s team will stay intact and at home in Palo Alto, California, reporting to Dr. Sanjay K. Jha, president of Qualcomm CDMA Technologies. Qualcomm’s headquarters in North America is in San Diego. While Airgo will continue to sell chips for use in access points and notebooks, Raleigh is most excited by the convergence aspect of adding MIMO tech to wireless WAN technology that Qualcomm already supports, allowing users full access no matter where they go.

“This is not a small thing. This is a bold move by Qualcomm to change the Wi-Fi industry,” says Raleigh. “This is a difficult technology challenge, but it’s why we’re so excited by Sanjay’s vision. Our competitors don’t have a position in this area. We can do things now that we couldn’t before.”

While Raleigh plays up the new Qualcomm parentage, some think Airgo does more for Qualcomm than vice versa.

Wi-Fi pundit Glenn Fleishman wrote this morning on Wi-Fi Networking News  that this “acquisition by Qualcomm ensures their future relevance.” He also fears what the notoriously litigious company will do with the technology patents it has acquired from Airgo and RFMD. Says Fleishman: “I expect Qualcomm to follow its usual aggressive strategy. Which means bloody noses, lawsuits, and so on. Qualcomm is in the midst of being sued by and suing a variety of competitors, involving patents that parties claim other parties have used without permission and the cost of patent royalties.”

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