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TI Builds on 802.11b Market with New Chipset

This week the Dallas-based semiconductor giant debuted a new chip, the ACX100, that increases the coverage area of wireless local area networks (WLAN) by as much as 70 percent and doubles the data transmission rates under the 802.11b standard. To hasten its rollout to market, TI is offering three reference designs for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to adapt the chip sets to PC cards, mini-PCI and USB applications.

The new chip comes at a time when TI is re-examining its WLAN strategy following the IEEE's May decision to eliminate the company's Packets Binary Convolutional Code (PBCC) technology as an alternative for the 802.11g specification, which is designed to bring data transmission rates through the unlicensed 2.4GHz spectrum up to 20+ Megabits per second (Mbps). Although it still remains an alternative scheme for the 802.11b standard, PBCC lost out to a modulation scheme developed by Intersil known as Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM), which is expected to be incorporated as the 802.11g standard by July.

But despite the promises of turbo data rates with the 802.11g specification—and its even faster brethren, 802.11a, which is a spec that operates in the 5.7GHz spectrum—neither technology is available on the market yet. The only fully operational standard that has ever made it to market is 802.11b.

"What our customers want is something that will work now as opposed to later. All that talk about 802.11g, it won't be available now like our stuff is," TI's Wireless Networking Business General Manager Mike Hogan told Internetnews.com.

TI is certainly doing all it can to speed along the time-to-market. In addition to the three reference designs, hardware development kits (HDK) and driver development kit (DDK) are available for developers. TI also expects to take each reference design through WECA certification of Wi-Fi interoperability to further improve time-to-market for customers. In addition, Microsoft-certified drivers will be available to coincide with the fall arrival of Windows XP. And analysts certainly endorse TI's revamped strategy of beating others to the punch.

"They have the advantage in terms of time to market. It's kind of an end-around [to outmaneuver Intersil.] They are just going to let the markets decide" which is the better technology rather than the IEEE, said Kurt Scherf, vice president of research at Parks Associates, a Dallas-based market research and consulting firm.

But Scherf concedes that time-to-market alone doesn't determine a winning strategy in the burgeoning WLAN market. Perhaps of greater importance is a new product's ability to coexist with present technology. For example, in his own testing, Scherf had difficulties with interoperability between Lucent and Cisco gear.

"I'm still not entirely convinced that it's a consumer friendly solution in terms of bringing in home and hooking it up and having it work right away...even though the products have a Wi-Fi certification, there are some manufacturers that require the products to be purchased from one vendor," Scherf added during a telephone interview.

Single points of entry
Yet with the ACX100, TI has finds a way around the interoperability dilemma. By using TI's PBCC technology, the chip enables users to increase not only their throughput but also their coverage area, eliminating the need to purchase more than one access point or gateway to cover their entire home.

TI's Hogan explained further:

In the fall of 1999, the IEEE ratified the first modulation scheme— known as complementary code keying (CCK)—that brought transmission rates to 11 Mbps. But despite the promises, only when the data moves closer to the access points does the transmission rate approach 11 Mbps. At all points in between, a bell curve occurs slowing the data to as slow as 2 Mbps.

"In any given environment, the noise makes it impossible to get the full 11 megabits," Hogan said.

But using TI's PBCC coding algorithm—which has been officially ratified by IEEE as an alternative to CCK—TI has been able to double the data rates while remaining backward compatible with CCK. In fact, the company recently filed with the FCC to certify PBCC for use at the 22 Mbps rate. By increasing the throughput, TI has extracted a 30-percent line-of-sight improvement, which translates to a 70 percent wider coverage area.

"We've given the customer choice where before they had none," Hogan explained.

"Consumers will now be able to easily experience broadband Internet sharing through a single access point, which has not been always the case today," said Allen Nogee, senior analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group. In addition, the sub $80 retail price for better performing PC cards will help with broad acceptance, the analyst added.

TI said that ACX100-based reference designs will be available immediately. Production shipments of customers' systems based upon the ACX100 are expected by the fourth quarter.