Broadcom Does 54Mbps on Single-Chip

You can never be too fast or too small in the computer world. That goes for chips, too — the products can’t get smaller until the chips are smaller. And they’ve always got to get faster.

Thus the constant game of one-up-manship between the Wi-Fi chip vendors, as a new “single-chip” solution is announced or shipped every few months lately. Broadcom was first with an 802.11b solution last year, but its prime competitor, Atheros , beat them to the punch in April with an extra-small 802.11g chipset.

Now Broadcom’s latest is out, the AirForce One 54g, or BCM4318. It is an everything on one die chip that includes a 2.4GHz radio, baseband processor, medium access controller (MAC) and other necessary components. Not all the components needed are inside, but Broadcom claims to have reduced the space needed on an integrated circuit board by 72%, as well as having lowered power usage and increased the range.

The ante is upped a bit by Broadcom’s inclusion of a baseband that supports both 802.11g and a. The chip comes with only the 2.5GHz radio, suitable only for 802.11g. Throw an extra 5GHz radio on, however, and the chip supports dual-band Wi-Fi. Plus, it will work in conjunction with another recent Broadcom announced product, the AirForce BCM5350, a system on a chip (SoC) that can combine the wireless with 10/100Mbps Fast Ethernet support, an integrated MIPS processor, and a virtual private network (VPN) acceleration engine in some configurations, to give original equipment manufacturers a fast way to make wireless routers and access points.

“It’s an end-to-end solution with three chips,” says Jeff Abramowitz, senior director of marketing for Broadcom’s Home & Wireless Networking Business Unit. “This is as integrated as you can get in the industry.”

The range increase comes from including a power amplifier, one announced a month ago, that provides full power up to the FCC limit.

All the major Wi-Fi chip vendors build in extras, and the BCM4318 will be no exception. It will have support for Xpress, the Broadcom speed boost based on aspects of the upcoming 802.11e specification; a 125 High Speed Mode (which only works with other Broadcom-equipped products), SecureEZSetup software for fast configuration of wireless security; and full support for the recently ratified IEEE 802.11i standard. Specifically, it’ll support WPA2, the Wi-Fi Alliance’s brand name for 11i when doing interoperability testing. The chip even includes integrated Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) security, so the hardware takes care of the encryption. AES is required for full 11i support.

Bob Wheeler, an analyst at The Linley Group who follows the chip market, says this announcement didn’t hold any surprises for him.

“It’s not greatly different than what Atheros does,” Wheeler says, pointing out that Atheros also offers a dual-band solution with just two chips. “Broadcom is the leader, though, and this solidifies its position in the market.” Broadcom’s relationship with Cisco’s Linksys division, the number one vendor of Wi-Fi equipment, helps keeps the chip maker on top. Atheros is gaining, though, through a strong relationship with D-Link and Netgear.

Abromowitz says the BCM4318 chips are sampling now, and will be in production by the end of the next quarter, with products out at the same time.

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