Atheros Unveils New Draft-N Chip, Network Processor

Chipmaker Atheros is preparing for the next step in supporting the (yet-to-be-ratified) 802.11n specification. Later this year when it ships, the AR5008AP-3NX2 will be the company’s first to support both 2.4 and 5 GHz radio frequencies, giving it backward compatibility not only with 802.11b/g (in 2.4 GHz) but also 802.11a (in 5 GHz) as well. Like previous products, it supports 3×3 MIMO (multiple in, multiple out) technology, meaning it has three transmitters and three receiving radios.

This chip, part of the company’s XSpan brand name for Draft-N products — those based on the 1.0 draft of 802.11n — will be coupled with a brand new network processor, the AR7161. This chip runs at 600 MHz, almost double that of Atheros’ first network processors announced in 2006. They are currently sampling with customers.

“We have the ability to support two simultaneous operations of 2.4 GHz radio band and 5 GHz radio band,” says Harpreet Chohan, senior product marketing manager at Atheros. “Emphasis [this year] from service providers and content providers will be the ability to deliver services to the end user. You can do it on broadband, but distribution in the home requires high bandwidth. We think enabling that will be dual-band, dual-concurrent 802.11n.” He says it will make services like high-definition video streaming, wireless gaming and VoWi-Fi a breeze.

Allocation is also key, as the 2.4 GHz band has a lot of interference from household objects and other networks. Chohan says, “By having this platform run 2.4 and 5 gigahertz simultaneous operation, you can specify, you can allocate video to 5 GHz or voice to 5 GHz, but services such at the Internet that are not real-time critical can be allocated to the 2.4 GHz band.”

Atheros has had the new Draft-N chip tested by Microsoft to get the Windows Vista Premium Certification. Vendors who use the chip are given a guarantee to get the logo if they submit for testing. Atheros says that the Vista Premium requirements actually call for dual-concurrent operation for 802.11n.

There are companies such as Airgo Networks (now a division of Qualcomm) that already claim compliance with a 2.0 Draft of 802.11n, even though such a thing doesn’t exist yet. Atheros isn’t going down that road yet. “What we do believe is that 1.0 draft is extremely stable,” says Susan Lansing, director of corporate marketing for Atheros. “We don’t expect any changes to the technical spec.” She also won’t promise on the company’s behalf that current or future products will be upgradeable to the final 11n spec, which likely won’t be approved until 2008. “We’ll do everything we can to make our solutions upgradeable… but we want to see what the final [specification] is going to be,” she says.

The AR5008AP-3NX2 is currently sampling, and the new chips should be found in products sometime within the first half of 2007.  

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