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As arrival of combo WLAN chips near, 802.11b spike is expected

Posted: 28 Oct 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:wlan chips? notebook computers? ibm? texas instruments? pc?

Some chip and systems makers are reporting an uptick in the growth rate of 802.11b WLAN capability in notebook computers, just as a transition to next-generation WLAN products nears. Some analysts said aggressive pricing may force a near-term shakeout among 802.11b chip suppliers.

"Originally we anticipated we would have 802.11b integrated in about 10 percent of our notebooks, but what we have seen recently is that has doubled to at least 20 percent. We think in the next 18 months WLANs will be as ubiquitous in notebooks as modems are today," said Ron Sperano, program director for wireless mobile market development at IBM Corp.

"Forecasted growth has jumped by a factor of 1.5 this year," said Steve Schnier, a market segment manager at Texas Instruments Inc. "People started out in January hoping to see 12 million units sold and now they are predicting 18 to 20 million units."

But other analysts pour cold water on both long- and short-term enthusiasm. Neither Int. Data Corp., nor Semico Research Corp. has revised upwards their 802.11b chip projections for 2002. Connie Wong, wireless analyst for Semico, said she expects 13 million chipsets will ship this year, up 62.5 percent from last year's 8 million.

As for the long-term, "Although we agree with the (Intel) forecast for 15 percent growth in the mobile PC market over the next few years, we believe Intel's forecast of a 90 percent WLAN attach rate by 2004 is too high," wrote Joe Osha, senior analyst for Merrill Lynch & Co.

Dell Computer Corp. has for two years offered an Agere Systems Inc. 802.11b chipset as an option for its notebooks via a miniPCI card, a Dell spokeswoman said. About 10 percent of Dell's notebooks are bought with the option today, and "it has been going up steadily," she said.

The exact trajectory of 11Mbps 802.11b technology is being debated as next-generation 54Mbps 802.11a/b/g combo chips and systems head to market.

WLANs go mainstream

Some first-tier computer makers are expected to debut at Comdex in November with their first notebooks with dual 2.4GHz and 5GHz 802.11a/b/g chipsets. Also, Intersil Corp. had announced that it has started sampling its two-piece Prism Duette, an 802.11a/b/g chipset that integrates a MAC, a baseband processor, and a zero-intermediate-frequency architecture.

"Wireless networking is continuing its strong growth and is rapidly becoming mainstream," said Larry Ciaccia, general manager for Intersil's wireless products group in a company statement. Intersil estimates a total of more than 30 million 802.11b systems have been sold worldwide to date.

Texas Instruments - which hopes to grab as much as a 16 percent stake of this year's 802.11b market - will sample its own 802.11a/b/g chipset in Q2 of 2003, Schnier said.

The two companies will compete with Atheros Communications Inc., which began production of an 802.11a/b/g chipset earlier this year and has design wins with NetGear, Sony, D-Link, and others. "We are the only people shipping," said Sheung Li, product line manager for Atheros.

Atheros' chipset integrates power amplifier and VCO parts that are not found in the Intersil Duette, Li said. Intel will ship an internally developed 802.11 combo chipset as part of its Banias notebook processor and core logic chipset early next year; that implementation will feature an Intel MAC and a Symbol Technologies Inc. baseband chip.

Intense price war

More than a dozen companies are competing for the growing number of 802.11 sockets in notebooks and embedded systems, sparking an intense price war at the 802.11b level.

Neither Dell nor IBM would comment on their plans for next-generation 802.11 chipsets. "If that decision has not been made yet, in the next couple weeks it will be," said Sperano of IBM, noting that IBM currently uses a mix of Cisco Systems and Intel .11b silicon.

"The .11b market is vicious right now. Chips that were $30 a year ago are selling in the teens now," said Li of Atheros.

Although Intersil has been an .11b pioneer, its financials are far from sunny despite the current growth in that market. Osha of Merrill Lynch said he expects Intersil's revenue for its next quarter to be up just 5.4 percent to $185 million. "We think that the company's expectations for improving margin may meet with disappointment," he said.

Separately, an effort to define a standard interface between 802.11 MAC and RF chips is gaining momentum. The Jedec-61 group now has more than 40 backers, including Nokia, TI, Motorola, Infineon, Intersil, and Intel, said Benno Ritter, a strategic marketing manager at Philips Semiconductors who chairs the effort.

The Jedec group hopes to select a final clocking scheme at an IEEE 802.3 meeting in Hawaii in November. It is already drafting portions of the spec, including the protocol. It hopes to have a final spec available by June.

By using a standard interface, proponents hope to let OEMs mix and match baseband and RF components and ease placement of antennas. Philips is said to be planning to build 802.11 antennas into future LCD modules.

"The embedded market for 802.11 is just starting up. This interface will be ready for those products when they come out in 2004," Ritter said.

Even with a standard interface, some believe separate baseband and RF chips will not match the performance of parts that have been designed and optimized as a pair. "People already have products shipping with integrated RF, so why do we want to take a step back?" asked Atheros' Li.

- Rick Merritt

EE Times

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