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Broadcom, Philips shrink Wi-Fi phone chips

The chipmakers are set to announce new Wi-Fi chips aimed at the cell phone market, a move that could revitalize the prospects of the popular 802.11b standard.

Chipmakers Broadcom and Philips Semiconductors are set to announce Monday smaller and more power-efficient Wi-Fi chips, a move that could revitalize the prospects of the popular 802.11b standard.

The new chips are based on the 802.11b wireless networking standard and will target manufacturers of portable devices, such as cell phones, handhelds and digital cameras, according to sources close to the companies' plans. Broadcom is expected to announce a single chip Wi-Fi product, while Philips Semiconductors, the chipmaking division of Royal Philips Electronics, will introduce a combined package of two Wi-Fi chips, which is still considerably smaller than current products, the sources said.

Philips and Broadcom representatives declined to comment on this story.

By offering chips aimed at high-volume products such as portable devices, the companies could add new life to the 802.11b standard. After the introduction of the higher throughput 802.11g standard, which is interoperable with networks using the 802.11b standard, the future of 802.11b was in question. The 802.11g standard allows for the wireless transfer of 54 megabits per second (mbps) versus 11mbps for the 802.11b standard.

Products based on 802.11g picked up where 802.11b slackened in the second quarter of 2003 and helped maintain strong growth in wireless networking, according to research firm Dell'Oro Group. Worldwide handset shipments in the second quarter grew 19.2 percent, to 118.3 million units, compared with the same period a year ago, according to research firm IDC.

Analysts had speculated that low-power versions of 802.11b chips would be suitable for popular portable devices and, hence, attractive to chipmakers and manufacturers. But the chips' relatively high power consumption was a challenge, and their larger size meant the devices had to be bigger.

Broadcom's new chip, however, combines the three main components of Wi-Fi processors--the MAC, baseband and radio--onto one chip, resulting in a smaller and cheaper product. The company also has improved the internal power management features of the chip so that it is up to 80 percent more efficient than previous Broadcom Wi-Fi products. Early versions of the processor are being sampled by manufacturers. The company is not expected to announce pricing or when the chip will be available in high volumes.

Philips' chip is not a single product, but it is smaller and will consume less power than previous 802.11b chips. The company is expected to introduce a smaller 802.11b chip in the first quarter of next year, according to those familiar with the company's plans.