TI Builds on 802.11b Market with New Chipset

This week the Dallas-based semiconductor giant debuted a new chip, the
ACX100, that increases the coverage area of wireless local area networks
(WLAN) by as much as 70 percent and doubles the data transmission rates
under the 802.11b standard. To hasten its rollout to market, TI is offering
three reference designs for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to
adapt the chip sets to PC cards, mini-PCI and USB applications.

The new chip comes at a time when TI is re-examining its WLAN strategy
following the IEEE’s May decision to eliminate the company’s Packets Binary
Convolutional Code (PBCC) technology as an alternative for the 802.11g
specification, which is designed to bring data transmission rates through
the unlicensed 2.4GHz spectrum up to 20+ Megabits per second (Mbps). Although
it still remains an alternative scheme for the 802.11b standard, PBCC
lost out to a modulation scheme developed by Intersil known as Orthogonal
Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM), which is expected to be incorporated
as the 802.11g standard by July.

But despite the promises of turbo data rates with the 802.11g specification—and
its even faster brethren, 802.11a, which is a spec that operates in the
5.7GHz spectrum—neither technology is available on the market yet.
The only fully operational standard that has ever made it to market is
802.11b.

“What our customers want is something that will work now as opposed to
later. All that talk about 802.11g, it won’t be available now like our
stuff is,” TI’s Wireless Networking Business General Manager Mike Hogan
told Internetnews.com.

TI is certainly doing all it can to speed along the time-to-market. In
addition to the three reference designs, hardware development kits (HDK)
and driver development kit (DDK) are available for developers. TI also
expects to take each reference design through WECA
certification of Wi-Fi interoperability
to further improve time-to-market
for customers. In addition, Microsoft-certified drivers will be available
to coincide with the fall arrival of Windows XP. And analysts certainly
endorse TI’s revamped strategy of beating others to the punch.

“They have the advantage in terms of time to market. It’s kind of an
end-around [to outmaneuver Intersil.] They are just going to let
the markets decide” which is the better technology rather than the IEEE,
said Kurt Scherf, vice president of research at Parks Associates, a Dallas-based
market research and consulting firm.

But Scherf concedes that time-to-market alone doesn’t determine a winning
strategy in the burgeoning WLAN market. Perhaps of greater importance
is a new product’s ability to coexist with present technology. For example,
in his own testing, Scherf had difficulties with interoperability between
Lucent and Cisco gear.

“I’m still not entirely convinced that it’s a consumer friendly solution
in terms of bringing in home and hooking it up and having it work right
away…even though the products have a Wi-Fi certification, there are
some manufacturers that require the products to be purchased from one
vendor,” Scherf added during a telephone interview.

Single points of entry
Yet with the ACX100, TI has finds a way around the interoperability dilemma.
By using TI’s PBCC technology, the chip enables users to increase not
only their throughput but also their coverage area, eliminating the need
to purchase more than one access point or gateway to cover their entire
home.

TI’s Hogan explained further:

In the fall of 1999, the IEEE ratified the first modulation scheme—
known as complementary code keying (CCK)—that brought transmission
rates to 11 Mbps. But despite the promises, only when the data moves closer
to the access points does the transmission rate approach 11 Mbps. At all
points in between, a bell curve occurs slowing the data to as slow as
2 Mbps.

“In any given environment, the noise makes it impossible to get the full
11 megabits,” Hogan said.

But using TI’s PBCC coding algorithm—which has been officially ratified
by IEEE as an alternative to CCK—TI has been able to double the data
rates while remaining backward compatible with CCK. In fact, the company
recently filed with the FCC to certify PBCC for use at the 22 Mbps rate.
By increasing the throughput, TI has extracted a 30-percent line-of-sight
improvement, which translates to a 70 percent wider coverage area.

“We’ve given the customer choice where before they had none,” Hogan explained.

“Consumers will now be able to easily experience broadband Internet sharing
through a single access point, which has not been always the case today,”
said Allen Nogee, senior analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group. In addition,
the sub $80 retail price for better performing PC cards will help with
broad acceptance, the analyst added.

TI said that ACX100-based reference designs
will be available immediately. Production shipments of customers’ systems
based upon the ACX100 are expected by the fourth quarter.

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