RealTime IT News

Atheros Changes its 802.11 Tune

Atheros Communications, the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based start-up that made a name for itself last year by pioneering the 802.11a technology, is hoping it can follow up on its success.

On Monday, Atheros is set to announce three next-generation chipsets as part of a new "OFDM Everywhere" initiative, which is trying to spread the gospel of Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) -- the modulation scheme popularized by the IEEE's 802.11a standard.

Atheros has been developing 802.11a technology since its inception in 1998 by Stanford University professor Dr. Teresa H. Meng. Early on, its competitive advantage was in the reference design of its two-chip solutions that allowed chipmakers to fabricate radio circuitry using the digital CMOS process which, in laymen's terms, means substantially lower production costs. The CMOS-solutions allowed Atheros to win over clients like Proxim and Intel, which turned to the Silicon Valley start-up to help kick-start its own 802.11 wireless local area network (WLAN) efforts. Prior to that, both companies had relied on Home RF technology.

Yet Atheros, which is hoping to go public through an IPO in 2003, was still just a start-up at that point. And while it did one thing very well, it, like most start-ups, still had a limited portfolio with only one product focused solely on 802.11a -- a 5GHz-frequency technology that was incompatible with the more popular 802.11b standard (a.k.a. Wi-Fi) using the 2.4GHz spectrum.

"Recognizing there is an installed base," explained Richard Redelfs, president and CEO, "we're trying to move the industry forward."

To do so, Atheros is spreading the gospel of its "OFDM Everywhere" initiative. The beauty of OFDM is that it transmits data using as little of the valuable spectrum as possible, unlike frequency-hopping technology like HomeRF. And with officials from FCC Chairman Michael Powell on down backing OFDM, IEEE last November ratified its use in the 2.4GHz space with the approval of the 802.11g draft standard.

"Spectrum is one of our scarcest natural resources," Redelfs told InternetNews.com during a recent interview in New York. "Only OFDM has the effect of maximizing overall system capacity, thus allowing for future growth of network traffic."

Therefore, although 802.11g hasn't yet become an official IEEE standard, Atheros is announcing the AR5001X chipset that supports the draft as well as the official .11a and .11b standards. With the 3-chip CMOS solutions, all future products based on Atheros' design will finally be backwards-compatible with existing Wi-Fi devices. Still, Redelfs downplayed the shift in strategy and instead stressed that the company will still focus on its core competence: 802.11a.

"The installed base of .11b has been overplayed a bit. The amount of B out there is pretty small. However, we're not a religious company...we're a technology company," he explained.

This time around, though, Atheros is not alone in the market. Other companies like Marvell Technology and Broadcom have already come out with CMOS-solutions for the 802.11b market. And Intersil has already secured networking giant Cisco Systems as a .11g partner.

So to satisfy its current fanbase, Atheros is also announcing the second-generation .11a chipset (AR5001A) that features a comprehensive security solution incorporating 802.1x authentication, AES encryption and Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) that is designed to enhance Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). A third chipset (AR5001AP) will help WLAN access point performance by including a high-performance MIPS processor and multiple UARTs to simplify Bluetooth or other integration.

The three new chipsets are sampling now, with volume production in the second quarter of this year. End user products will be launched by a variety of computing and consumer electronics manufacturers in the second half of the year.