BURLINGAME, Calif. A handful of companies have launched an effort to define a standard interface linking 802.11 wireless LAN baseband and RF chips, potentially redrawing the boundaries for how those chips are designed. Wireless LAN chip makers said the effort is poorly timed, given the unsettled state of 802.11 standards and pulls against the trend to design baseband and RF components in tandem or integrate them.
The work comes at a time when 802.11 LANs form one of the rare bright spots in an otherwise depressed communications industry. As many as 20 makers of 802.11 chips are rushing devices to market as new classes of systems makers and service companies pursue fresh opportunities delivering industrial-strength wireless LANs for businesses and a rising army of public-access "hot spots."
The Jedec-61 standards group hopes to lower the cost of delivering 802.11 by letting notebook and handheld makers mix and match RF and baseband chips , granting them more flexibility in how they lay out their antennas. The group also hopes the interface will enable baseband chips to become sucked into the so-called south bridge I/O devices in PC core logic.
Acer Laboratories, Philips Semiconductors, Mitsubishi, Conexant, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Resonext, Channel Technologies and Intersil kicked off the effort at a first meeting in March. They hope to have a draft standard for a basic link by the end of the year, though creating a follow-on interconnect that could allow broad plug-and-play interoperability of baseband and RF chips will take longer.
Developers of the spec will need to make a hard call on where to place the A/D conversion between the digital baseband and analog RF. "This is a very technical challenge for how to handle the partitioning," said Fred Leung, a senior executive at Acer Labs.
The interface will support data rates up to 216 Mbits/second over distances from 50 centimeters to 1 meter. "We want to enable an implementation of wireless LANs that makes systems cheaper and ensures they can interoperate," said Benno Ritter, a strategic marketing manager at Philips Semiconductors who chairs Jedec-61.
The initial spec will define a physical signaling interface that requires developers to download firmware to address the registers on an RF chip. Philips and Channel have started work to unify separate proposals for such an interface. "We are still open for [other] proposals," said Ritter, adding that the group's next meeting will be in June in Montreal or Boulder, Colo.
Chip set makers are already eyeing 802.11 integration. "We will be integrating 802.11b wireless support into our forthcoming 8235 south bridge, but are still considering a number of different approaches one of which is the integration of MAC and baseband," said Richard Brown, marketing director for Via Technologies Inc. in Taiwan. "We expect this functionality to be enabled in the south bridge by year end."
Intel Corp. will n ot integrate 802.11 functions into its chip sets for three or four years, said Simon Ellis, a wireless evangelist in the company's mobile group. In the meantime, the company is working on ways to ease antenna placement, RF characterization and certification and power management for 802.11 in notebook computers that will use its Banias processor in 2003, he said.
"One of the things Intel wants to do is solve the problem of there being not enough 802.11 clients out there," said Ron Reich, a director for strategic investments at Intel Capital.
Only 10 percent of notebooks have 802.11 today. "We'd like to see that rise to 100 percent as soon as possible," Reich said.
Chip makers affronted
But integrating 802.11 basebands into chip sets and creating standard RF interfaces is not the right approach, said many wireless LAN chip makers. Every 802.11 chip has its own RF-baseband interface today. The separate chips are designed in tandem to maximize performance, meaning mix-and-match chips will offer lower performance, said Rich Redelfs, chief executive officer of 802.11 chip maker Atheros Communications (Sunnyvale, Calif.).
"The cost of a good 802.11 card is not something that's holding this industry back," he said.
Indeed, chip prices are coming down rapidly with as many as 20 companies designing 802.11 silicon, said David Tahmassebi, chief executive of Resonext Communications Inc. (San Jose, Calif.), a wireless LAN chip startup. The 802.11b chips sell for as little as $15 today and "eventually the prices will get down to $7 to $8," he said.
Another 802.11 silicon startup, Bermai Inc. (Palo Alto, Calif.), hopes to ship this year a single chip that handles all baseband and RF functions for the 54-Mbit/second 802.11a standard. A number of companies are designing "combo chips" that support today's 802.11b, and an upcoming 11g standard. And beyond that several have on their road maps a combo of combos that will marry 802.11 var iants and 2.5G cellular network links, anticipating systems that roam between wireless LAN and WAN connections.
The Jedec group may define an interface but "the standards keep changing," said Izik Kirshenbaum, chief executive officer of Envara Inc. (Ra'anana, Israel), a startup that plans to ship an 802.11a/b/g chip later this year and is already prototyping a combo 802.11/2.5G chip.
"We think the connection between GPRS and 802.11 is the next big thing," said Resonext's Tahmassebi.
Bill Howe, chief executive officer of Mobility Network Systems, said, "The wireless LAN wave has hit everyone by surprise. Everyone's looking at how to bridge these new networks at the chip and systems level." His startup makes boxes that tie carrier 2.5G cellular networks to public wireless LAN hot spots.
Ralph Petroff, chief executive officer of Time Domain Corp. (Huntsville, Ala.), hopes his ultrawideband technology is ultimately tacked on to the list of 2.5G, 802.11 and Bluetooth standards that tomorrow's mob ile systems support."Multimode will be an ongoing issue," he said.
Small nets, big hopes
At the Wireless Ventures conference here this past week, 802.11 startups stole the day as investors said they see an unstoppable grassroots movement developing to deploy wireless LANs in businesses and public access points. Indeed, many said the 802.11 nets are stealing the thunder from cellular in the wake of postponed 3G rollouts and disappointments over 2.5G networks that are being seen as expensive and slow.
The movement to deploy 802.11 hot spots is "like the wired Internet all over again," Sky Dayton, chief executive officer of Boingo Wireless Inc. (Santa Monica, Calif.), said at the conference. Dayton's company is aggregating disparate hot spots by providing a central billing and interface for customers, essentially crafting a national 802.11 network, attempting to recreate in wireless his success founding the Earthlink Internet service provider.
The company said it works with 600 of an estimated 1,000 hot spots across the United States. Four airports now have full 802.11 coverage with 26 more coming up with partial coverage, Dayton said. "You will see the network fill out, but I think it will take a couple of years," he said.
Several sources expressed skepticism about what business model among several presented at the conference would create successful quilts of tiny hot spots.
Market watcher Allied Business Intelligence estimates 802.11 will rise from 16 million users in 2001 to 60 million in 2006. Gartner Dataquest estimates 45 million 802.11 chip sets will ship in 2005, up from 7.5 million in 2001. Others estimate as many as 1.5 million 802.11 chip sets now ship each month.
"It's as important as 3G," said Craig Mathias, analyst with the Farpoint Group (Ashland, Mass.).
Alan Reiter, a wireless consultant based in Chevy Chase, Md., called 802.11 "the real wireless Internet. This is definitely happening. We just need to work out the logistics."
Bullis h systems makers
Eric Benhamou, interim chief executive officer of Palm Inc. (Santa Clara, Calif.), added fuel to the wireless LAN fire at the conference, announcing that Palm will release a handheld supporting 802.11 in the first half of next year. "I am bullish on 802.11 for a variety of reasons," Benhamou said.
So are a clutch of back-end systems makers seeking to build more-muscular 802.11 access points and create the kind of router, switch and management functions for them that wired Ethernet networks have today.
"People are foreseeing 802.11 networks will become larger and more complex," said Christian Dubeil, president of FHP Wireless. "We are still at the hub stage with 802.11." FHP, a startup, has not yet disclosed its plans for systems that tie back-end 802.11 nets to wired corporate networks
Mabuhay Networks Inc., another "stealth-mode" 802.11 systems startup, is said to be creating access points that span extended distances using directional antennas. And ReefEdge Inc. (Fo rt Lee, N.J.), started by executives from IBM Corp.'s pervasive computing group, discussed plans here for server appliances that bring security and manageability to corporate 802.11 networks.
Richard Shaffer, editor-in-chief of VentureWire and host of the first Wireless Ventures conference, predicted that 802.11 "will be everywhere soon. Wireless is the next big thing. It's not a question of if but when."
Despite his bullish predictions, Shaffer opened the conference on a bearish note, calling attention to the steep decline of the telecom business generally and admitting his own past mistakes in picking technology winners. Market capitalization for telecom companies has plummeted, venture capital spending has declined for seven consecutive quarters and carriers are "in survival mode with too much capacity, debt and timid management," he said.
In cellular, "handset sales have dropped in Japan where people are supposed to be cellular-crazy, and it seems as if everyone w ho wants a cell phone already has one," Shaffer said.
He noted that his wireless conference had its roots in a 1991 event on pen computing, which was then forecast to become an industry driver. "It didn't turn out to be the next big thing," he said.