Intel Exec: B is Best for Now

NEW YORK — a, b, a/b, or g?

Anyone attending Intel’s new Centrino Wi-Fi-enabled chipset launch
Wednesday
could not avoid the alphabet soup-like discussions about the
different 802.11 wireless LAN networking specifications.

At the same time, the chip maker found itself answering critics who questioned
why
the company sent Centrino into the marketplace wedded to only one 802.11
version — 802.11b , commonly known as Wi-Fi .

The components in Centrino, Intel’s new Wi-Fi chipset that helps extend
battery lives in laptops by using less juice, includes its latest Pentium M
processor, the Intel 855 chipset family and a PRO/Wireless 2100 Network
Connection card that recognizes Wi-Fi-certified (802.11b) wireless Internet
access points.

But given the already-crowded 2.4 GHz band in which Wi-Fi access
transmits data, why not build in a chipset that can also recognize 802.11a
specifications? After all, tech experts and Intel rivals argue, 802.11a
transmits data in the less-cluttered 5MHz band, and at rates of 54 Mbps (megabits per second) using OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing, which enables the transmission of big data files over a radio wave), better for video and audio file transmission than the 11 Mbps transmission rate with Wi-Fi.

Anand Chandrasekhar, an Intel vice president and manager of its mobile platforms group, said the
company plans to introduce a dual-band chipset that recognizes both
networking specifications by second quarter of this year. He said
Centrino’s
b-only launch follows the logic of ratified standards and the number of
b-compatible hotspots that help users access Internet
networks.

“We made the choice to go with b because wireless LAN vendors were all
b-based,” he said. “The vendors wanted a technology that is mature and
didn’t
need debugging. From a validation standpoint, we wanted to be able to
validate 802.11a with the same number of access point vendors as we do with
802.11b.”

In addition, Chandrasekhar said Intel will roll out with 802.11g-enabled
Centrino chipsets by the end of the year — after the IEEE (Institute of
Electrical and Electronics Engineers) has ratified specifications that the
technology industry can then design commercial offerings around.

And so goes the alphabet soup discussions about the 802.11 family of
specifications: The g-based networking standard transmits data at 20Mbps,
roughly twice 802.11b’s 11 Mbps rate. But g also clashes with b, added
Samuel Dusi, a director in IBM’s personal computing division, because it
also operates in the same 2.4 GHz radio frequency as 802.11b, the current
Wi-Fi champ.

Hence, Intel’s decision to go where the market is, instead of where it
is
expected to go before technology working groups agree on standards.

For example, McDonald’s restaurants, one of the companies
participating in Intel’s launch of its Centrino chipset product Wednesday, is sticking with b-compatible Wi-Fi. With the help of Cometa Networks, a
wireless access provider funded by Intel, IBM and AT&T, the fast-food
franchise is offering “bits and bites,” high-speed broadband Internet
access in select Manhattan locations. After the pilot test, the company plans to roll
out more networks in its stores, which also use the technology internally to track inventory and improve store management.

The same is true with Borders Books and Hilton Hotels, who have announced they are rolling out Wi-Fi networks for their customers.

Chandrasekhar said in addition to consumer market offerings, the
corporate environment offering wireless LAN is mostly b-based as well, at
least for the next year to 18 months.

“We don’t have the same breadth of supply on the a band as we do on b,”
he told internetnews.com. “So it was a very conscious decision
because we’re
building a brand that stands for technology and safety. Given that the
demand is on b, we chose to say, ‘OK, let’s go to market with b.’ We will
introduce the a/b chipset in Q2 so our customers get a choice. And once the
g standard is ratified, we’ll have them by the end of the year.”

The introduction of the Centrino chipset in the latest generation of
more
lightweight laptops comes as sales of laptop computers continue to outpace
desktop sales, and as many enterprise customers realize they can no longer
put off upgrades in their networks.

According to technology research firm Gartner , worldwide
shipments of mobile computers, which includes laptops and tablet
computers, totaled 30.1 million in 2002, an increase of 11 percent from the
prior year. Shipments of desktop computers, meanwhile, inched up by 3
percent to 98.3 million in the same time frame, the firm said.

It’s that kind of data — combined with enterprises considering
mobile laptop purchases in their upgrade decisions and a rise in
802.11b-compatible networks — that has Intel and its partner companies in
the
technology industry looking with hope at the Centrino launch.

“Once you build in communications into a computing device it changes the
usage paradigm,” Chandrasekhar said. “The footprint of the device could
look
the same, but once you build in communications, people use it differently.
Wi-Fi shifts that usage model” and makes the device truly more personal to
the user. And, in keeping with the alphabet soup discussion, “it puts the P back in PC.”

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