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.

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