Intel’s Might Pushes Packets in the Wind

SAN FRANCISCO — Intel scientists are branching out their job skills beyond just building the next generation of wireless computing on silicon.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaking giant is using some of this year’s $4.8 billion R&D budget to work carrier and OEM partners on interoperability. In addition, company execs say they are working the standards bodies and regulatory agencies to make sure that its Centrino strategy thrives and flourishes.

Kevin Kahn, an Intel senior fellow in the corporate technology group and director of the company’s communications technology lab says the company is working with carriers right now to develop a standard interface so that roaming mobile devices can pass between coverage areas and not have to log in and out each time.

“Right now, it’s up to the consumer to do that,” Kahn said during a meeting with reporters here. “We have sniffer technologies that find these networks and then based on a set of rules can determine which parts of the spectrum are usable and which are off limits.”

Kahn said Intel is piloting the program overseas with the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore to handle authorization, billing issues and backend information. The idea is to subcontract various services and features behind the original carrier so customers do not have to configure more than the initial protocol setup.

The testing process includes software-defined radios, or SDRs. The idea is to use either a general-purpose processor or programmable silicon, as well as hardware modules (such as antennas and radio-frequency front ends) to create a generic hardware base.

Intel said the devices would then be able to handle multiple frequency bands found in cell phones, Wi-Fi enabled computers, and GPS devices. Kahn says the radios would be able understand multiple transmission protocols, be reconfigured on the fly, and be easily upgraded — all in a single device design. Of the three major labs that Intel runs, Kahn says the wireless one is showing the most progress.

“Because we’ve done so much work in the radio silicon area, we feel Intel has the best chance of being able to deal with the chaos and establish commonality in the market,” Kahn said.

For the time being, Kahn said that Intel’s CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) technology remains the cheapest and most effective way to build re-programmable chips. Intel does have a working silicon-germanium that could do the trick, but Kahn said it takes four or five masking steps to accomplish the same thing as a CMOS radio.

Partnerships are also a big part of Intel’s wireless strategy. Last month, the company signed a deal with telecom provider Alcatel to develop IEEE 802.16a technology (commonly known as WiMAX) standards and products by the second half of 2005.

Intel’s work with Cisco Systems has also been noted in the field of mesh networks. Mesh is a network topology where devices are connected with many redundant connections between network nodes. The Internet is good example of a mesh network. The architecture is now being used to help augment wireless LANs based on cellular or 802.11 technologies.

The company is also putting a lot of effort behind improving the ultra wideband . The company said it is working with some 60 to 70 companies as part of the multi-band OFDM Forum to help shape the direction of the standard. Kahn said the group is making progress and even has support of long-time rival Texas Instruments .

Behind the scenes, Intel takes a quiet approach to moving wireless LAN technology along. Kahn said he knows and has worked directly with FCC chairman Michael Powell, but explains that the company can play the part of trusted advisor because Intel does not own any of the wireless spectrum.

“We’re like an intermediary between consumers and the government,” Kahn said. “People are seeing a lot of more interesting things to do with spectrum so I think we’re better off making the spectrum more flexible. We need to be more efficient about what we have, because we can’t make more.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of the story incorrectly identified the IDA as the InfoTechnology Development Association.

News Around the Web