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Atheros serves up new Wi-Fi combo chips

The company announces chips designed to help consumers connect to more types of wireless networks, as the industry looks to encourage more use of the emerging Wi-Fi technology.

Atheros Communications announced it is making chips designed to help consumers connect to more types of wireless networks, as the industry looks to encourage even more use of the emerging Wi-Fi technology.

The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company on Tuesday said it is in full production with a number of new Wi-Fi chips used in PC Cards and in the access points, or radio transmitters, with which the cards exchange signals. The chips are based on a mix of the different Wi-Fi specs--802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11a--so they can provide access to a Wi-Fi network regardless of the spec the network uses. The difference in Wi-Fi specs is becoming increasingly irrelevant as chipmakers move to cover all the bases in future products.

"The standards debate is basically over and the winner is all three," Atheros CEO Craig Barratt said. "The notion now is that you can future-proof anything with a universal a-b-g card...Over time, the whole business will migrate to universal, but the process will take place over the next 6 months."

Barratt added that combination products have been and will continue to be a trend for the year, with up to 40 companies planning to sell PC Cards and access points based on Atheros' new universal chips by July. Barratt expects that PC Cards will support combination chips first.

Wi-Fi chips have been moving toward combination or universal connectivity as manufacturers hope to spur faster adoption through easier access. At the same time, chip prices have been falling, a process that will likely continue throughout the year.

Barratt expects the wholesale cost of combination 802.11a-b-g PC Cards to slide about 20 percent, from less than $30 to around $25. Retail pricing is typically two times to two-and-a-half times wholesale pricing.

As prices fall, volumes for Wi-Fi gear are jumping, and now some are suggesting that the industry will begin to focus on software development rather than hardware.

"The industry has been focused on all these letters, but what we are learning is that software is the issue," Sean Maloney, an executive vice president at Intel, said in a recent interview with CNET News.com. Maloney was referring to the software-based features and services delivered by wireless networking products. "What people care about is what is more and more delivered through software, and we've now got more engineers working on software than on hardware."

Barratt agreed but said there was still room for substantial improvements in hardware.

"Those comments about software are correct, but don't overlook the hardware yet," said Barratt. "We're still a couple years before you can do that."

As an example, Barratt noted that under the Broadband Jumpstart Act there would be additional spectrum, and up to 27 total channels, that manufacturers would have to support in the 5GHz range, which would require some technical know-how that only hardware makers could provide.