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Centrino to connect with all Wi-Fi standards

New component will help next generation of Intel's wireless chip technology reach full audience for Wi-Fi.

Intel on Thursday announced a component that's compatible with all Wi-Fi standards, which will let the chipmaker reach the full audience of individuals who want to wirelessly connect to local area networks.

As previously reported, Intel has been shipping the chip component in sample quantities to manufacturers since July. The part, code-named Calexico 2 and officially called the Intel Pro/Wireless 2915ABG Network Connection, is for client devices such as notebooks and can connect to wireless networks using any of the three standards used in Wi-Fi technology: 802.11a, 802.11b or 802.11g. It will be available in notebooks this quarter and will be part of the next-generation Centrino bundle of chips, code-named Sonoma, which is expected in early 2005.

The previous Intel wireless networking chip connected to 802.11b and 802.11g networks. The b standard allows for the wireless transfer of data at speeds of up to 11 megabits per second, while the g and a standards enable rates of up to 54mbps. Actual connections are about half that. The 802.11b standard is compatible with 802.11g, but 802.11a is not compatible with the b and g standards.

Though the market for 802.11a-based products is relatively small, it's growing, and Intel expects large businesses will use the new part to future-proof their computers, according to Jim Johnson, Intel vice president and general manager of the company's wireless networking group. Johnson added that 802.11a may have a place in the consumer market because companies are developing multimedia applications that are better supported in 802.11a networks.

The component will include new software, called ProSet/Wireless Software version 9.0, that will cost $27 per chip when purchased in 10,000-unit quantities, about $5 more than the earlier generation of Intel's Wi-Fi connector. ProSet/Wireless version 9.0 will consist of tools designed to make network configuration, troubleshooting and security easier.

"It isn't very cool to talk about," said Johnson, referring to the unsexy nature of improvements in the areas of usability and security, "but (those issues) do prohibit people from entering the market."

"It's easy to talk about performance," he added, "but users are really looking for features other than performance."

Competitors such as Atheros already have combination 802.11a/b/g chips.

The demand for 802.11b parts is dropping, and there has been a rapid move to 802.11g parts. Johnson doesn't expect there to be an influx of requests for 802.11a technology, since there aren't as many networks using the standard.

Intel's new component includes software that makes it compatible with networking equipment from Cisco Systems. Intel and Linksys, a Cisco division, have developed software to enable devices that use Intel's chip to automatically go through a quick setup process for getting on the network.

The Intel component is also compatible with the 802.11i Wi-Fi security standard.

The chipmaker has also been pursuing other wireless networking and broadband technologies. Broadband service provider Speakeasy announced on Thursday that it has received an undisclosed strategic investment from Intel's Communications Fund to expand wireless broadband services based on the wireless broadband technology referred to as WiMax.

Intel has also been promoting a proposal for the next-generation Wi-Fi standard, called 802.11n.