Next waves For Wi-Fi

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Wireless LAN chips will show up in mobile phones and start embracing smart antenna technology in 2004, according to a panel of wireless chip experts at the Communications Design Conference in the US.

Wireless LAN chips will show up in mobile phones and start embracing smart antenna technology in 2004, according to a panel of wireless chip experts at the Communications Design Conference in the US.

In a broad discussion of all things wireless, Craig Barratt, chief executive of Wi-Fi chip maker Atheros Communications, said phased-array antenna technology would appear in client 802.11 chips soon. "That will be a way to substantially increase frequency efficiency," Barratt said.

In an interview after the panel, Barratt said he expected the technology to first appear before the end of next year in silicon for access points supporting multiple antennas linking to single-antenna PC chipsets to provide greater range or capacity. That could be followed by support for multiple antennas on both client and access-point chipsets.

"This is one way Wi-Fi chip makers will be able to differentiate their products. The big challenge is it will add costs. You will have to sell the products on the added value in terms of greater range or data rate," Barratt added.

In the panel session, Carl Panasik, a distinguished member of the technical staff at Texas Instruments Inc. took a contrary position. He noted that in tests running six WiFi nets in a single room, smart antenna technology had little impact on performance.

However, in private comments after the panel Panasik said TI was "very deep into" smart antenna technology. "We have a lot of the basic patents in this area, but it has to become part of a standard before we will allocate resources to [building] something," he said.

The panellists generally agreed that while only large carriers had a reasonable business model for building public Wi-Fi networks, 802.11 will nevertheless appear in phones starting next year. Earlier this year, Broadcom, Philips and TI launched low-power Wi-Fi chipsets aimed at smart phones and wireless PDAs.

"One year ago everyone thought Wi-Fi was a power hog. But we have shown with good engineering how we can expand this technology in the mobile space," said Paul Marino, general manager of the business communications group at Philips Semiconductors.

"So we will see the logical convergence of cellular and Wi-Fi networks next year," concluded Craig Mathias, principal with the Farpoint Group, who moderated the panel. Mathias said he expected to see mobile phones with Wi-Fi emerge at the Consumer Electronics Show in January and to be in production by June.

However, seamless roaming between the two networks won't arrive for as many as three years, said Andrew Seybold, a wireless analyst and president of Outlook 4Mobility on the panel.

"You need standardisation for roaming to happen, and that won't come from the 3GPP [cellular standards group] until the end of this year. So, yes, it will probably not be implemented for another two or three years," said Christian Kermarrec, vice-president of the RF and wireless group at Analog Devices Inc.

Separately, panellists from ADI and Philips disagreed with a contention of the moderator Mathias that Bluetooth is dead. "Philips is shipping millions of Bluetooth components a month. The headset is a primary application. It is also being used for synching PDAs and as a link for computer peripherals," said Marino of Philips.

"Thirty to 40 percent of all cellphones in the next few years will have Bluetooth," added ADI's Kermarrec.

Mathias and others contended that Bluetooth is too slow for sharing files or synching systems. While it may appear in many phones, it may see as little use as the infrared ports that now proliferate in today's notebook computers, Barratt said.

The panel was generally upbeat on the outlook for ultrawideband technology, providing UWB sticks to applications for which it is well suited.

"UWB is a personal area network, not a competitor with 802.11, and it's not a substitute for Bluetooth though it may be what Bluetooth evolves to on the road map. UWB will serve fundamentally as a wire replacement on computer and consumer systems," said Marino.

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