Mobile

Atheros Wi-Fi chips get notebook backers

The company says several big PC makers--think Hewlett-Packard and IBM--are planning to use its multimode 802.11 chips in their laptops.

Atheros Communications is extending the reach of its wireless networking chips by getting them embedded in notebooks from several major PC makers.

The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based wireless networking company announced Wednesday that Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba, IBM and NEC will use Atheros' dual-mode 802.11a and 802.11b chip in notebooks. IBM, Toshiba and NEC are already shipping notebooks embedded with the Atheros multimode Wi-Fi chip, and later in the year HP will begin sending out laptops with its 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g combination chip.

"We see a definite trend in embedding (Wi-Fi) in notebooks. Expect this trend towards embedding to pick up in this next year," Atheros CEO Rich Redelfs said in a conference call Wednesday morning.

Chipmaking giant Intel has been working on its own dual-band Wi-Fi chips to add to Centrino, which combines Pentium-M microprocessors (previously known as Banias), a chipset (code-named Odem) and 802.11b or dual-band 802.11b and 802.11a Wi-Fi chips. The company will eventually add its own Wi-Fi chips to Centrino, but it has experienced an engineering delay. In the interim, Intel is using Philips' Wi-Fi chips in place of its own.

Intel's engineering delay may be helping Atheros, as manufacturers turn to the company for Wi-Fi chips. Sources say Intel will subsidize the Wi-Fi chips bundled in Centrino to gain market share.

Other major manufacturers have signed on to release notebooks with Atheros chips later this year, said Redelfs. He added that the company has received as many orders for its multimode chips in the last two weeks as it received in all of the fourth quarter last year. So far, IBM, Toshiba and NEC have prepared only one laptop model using the Atheros chip--but more are expected.

Redelfs added that notebook makers are especially interested in multimode chips because they essentially kill multiple birds with one stone. There are products in the market based on three 802.11 specifications--802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g. Each has its own advantages and industry support, making it difficult for manufacturers to totally ignore any one specification. 802.11b was the first specification to be introduced and to gain broad support from manufacturers and consumers. The 802.11a standard offers faster network speeds than 802.11b, but is incompatible with 802.11b. Meanwhile, 802.11g is compatible with 802.11b, and has faster network speeds, but may not support as many access points to networks in crowded environments as the 802.11a standard can.

Manufacturers don't have to dedicate one notebook model to a specific single 802.11 standard. By using multimode chips, they expect to cut down on the number of support calls from consumers who are experiencing problems with compatibility between the various 802.11 standards.

Redelfs also said that Atheros has discovered interoperability problems among currently available 802.11g-based products. This has raised concerns that the problems may taint the public's image of the 802.11g specification. The 802.11g specification has not been certified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) or by the Wi-Fi Alliance, so products that are in the market are based on draft versions of the specification.

Products using an Atheros 802.11g chip are not expected to reach the market until the end of March.

Broadcom and Intersil 802.11g chips are used in products already on the market. The companies said Wednesday that they have not heard of any interoperability problems with the products.