Atheros Intros New Combo Chip

Motivated largely by the sizable demand for wireless connectivity in netbooks, Atheros today announced that it has developed the industry’s first 1-stream 802.11n and Bluetooth combo solution on a Half MiniCard for the PC market. The AR9002WB-1NGB features Atheros Align 11n 1-stream technology and Atheros ROCm Bluetooth for PCs.

“When we look at the netbook market, and 802.11n and Bluetooth attach rates, they are fairly significant. Netbooks are all about Internet connectivity. There’s a 100% attach rate on Wi-Fi for netbooks,” Teresa Liou, senior product marketing manager at Atheros told Wi-Fi Planet. “If you look at the Bluetooth attach rate, the rate today is around 40% for 2009. If you look at the next couple of years, that will grow significantly.”

The AR9002WB-1NGB includes the AR9285 single-chip 1-stresam 11n PCIe solution, already shipping in millions of PCs worldwide. Atheros reports that currently, seven of the top ten PC OEMs are shipping notebooks, netbooks, and all-in-one desktops featuring Atheros Align technology.

Order the combo

While it’s hardly revolutionary to put Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on one chipset—Broadcom’s BCM4329 announced in December 2008 combines 802.11n, Bluetooth, and FM technologies on a single silicon die, for instance—the AR9002WB-1NGB breaks ground, according to Atheros, for its size.

“For the first time, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have been put in a 1×1 11n PCIe combo solution,” says Liou. “The Half Mini is great for small form factors—two wireless technologies on one card.” The AR9285 integrates the MAC/baseband and radio transceiver, as well as the power amplifier, low noise amplifiers, and antenna switch in an 8mm x 8mm QFN package.

The new combo chip features the AR3011 Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR single-chip solution—optimized for PCs—and is software upgradeable to Bluetooth 3.0.

Directing traffic

With more wireless technologies being integrated into smaller PC designs, multi-radio coexistence is always a potential problem area.

“Our new wireless LAN and Bluetooth combo solution goes beyond coexistence to enable cooperation between wireless LAN, Bluetooth, and even 3G technologies co-located on even small netbook platforms,” says Liou. “Both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi operate on the 2.4 GHz band, so there is some level of cooperation that you need to police between them to make sure they don’t interfere with one another. We’ve put in all of these mechanisms to make sure that we do that. Packet arbitration is one element; and the bandwidth multiplexer can really look at what kind of profile you are transmitting. With Bluetooth, for instance, it gives it higher priority, so that you don’t interrupt time-sensitive traffic, like voice calls.”

Atheros has engineered a suite of advanced wireless techniques to deliver what it calls “Atheros Universal Wireless Cooperation.” The tools consist of channel protection and timesharing mechanisms, custom 3G coexistence optimization, and Atheros’ proprietary WLAN/Bluetooth Coexistence Agent. 

“It means faster Web surfing and file transfers, uninterrupted media streams and clear voice transmissions over Wi-Fi, as well as uninterrupted synching of wireless PC peripherals, such as headsets, mice, and keyboards with the Bluetooth link,” says Liou. “When Bluetooth is operating, Wi-Fi takes a big hit. So, we make sure they don’t step on each other. If you don’t want your throughput to be throttled, you need to have some of these features in order to protect it.”

Can you hear me now?

As a result of taking into account the burgeoning netbook market, including the offerings from cell phone carriers that incorporate 3G, Atheros optimized its combo solution for coexistence with 3G technology by utilizing protection mechanisms and RF filters.

“We also have on this card 3G coexistence optimization and filters…So, you get this additional dimension of 3G coexistence, as well, because a lot of carriers are starting to sell netbooks through their channels. The Acer Aspire One is being sold through At&T. 3G is an option that’s becoming popular in netbooks, so the 3G coexistence option is going to be important in certain segments of the netbook market,” says Liou.

Both sides of the fence

In addition to implementing coexistence techniques on the client side, Atheros is leveraging its presence in 802.11n APs and routers.

“Intelligent software features enable access points to detect the presence of Bluetooth interference on the client side and intelligently adapt their transmission rates to reduce interference between client wireless LANs and Bluetooth radios. This AP-based cooperation results in faster Wi-Fi transmissions and improved netbook battery life,” says Liou. “We’ve actually leveraged our AP software to be able to detect when there’s Bluetooth interference on the client side. If your AP doesn’t get traffic from your Wi-Fi for a while, it might think the transmission rate is not correct. With our cooperative solution, it knows Bluetooth is probably transmitting, so it’ll know to keep it at this rate and just wait for a while until it sees the Wi-Fi come back online. You get this awareness on both sides about there being Bluetooth.”

Pennies on the dollar

Keeping costs down is, of course, a principle concern for OEMs. Atheros says its “integration expertise” has resulted in a “highly cost-effective” Half MiniCard embedded module design. The AR9002WB-1NGB utilizes fewer board components by sharing design elements, such as the PCB, LED, and antenna connectors, which results in nearly a 20 percent reduction in Rest of Bill of Materials (RBOM) costs, says Atheros.

The AR9002WB-1NGB supports Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Linux operating systems and is sampling to customers now.

Naomi Graychase is Managing Editor at Wi-Fi She covers wireless technologies from the mid-coast region of Maine.


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