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Intel plugging away at wireless networks

Armed with the faith that wireless networking's time is nigh, the chipmaker is putting its R&D group to work on improving accessibility--and so making it more attractive to consumers.

Intel is working to massage out the kinks in the wireless networking market.

At a press event in San Francisco on Wednesday, Intel representatives described and demonstrated technologies that the chipmaker's research and development team has been working on to improve wireless networking. Projects included boosting the efficiency of wireless coverage, making wireless networking available in rural areas and improving the way different wireless technologies work together.

While the company doesn't expect each of the technologies to become a standalone product, it does anticipate that the research could prove useful in making wireless networking an easier technology for consumers to grasp and use.

"Intel is playing to get into the client market, and they are slowly integrating wireless networking capabilities into their processors," said Gemma Paulo, an analyst with In-Stat/MDR. "Intel hopes to make (wireless networking) something that is common in all businesses and homes, and they are investing in innovation on the infrastructure side to get people interested in wireless LANs (local area networks)."

One of the research projects Intel is working on deals with mesh networking, also known as multihop networking. This involves distributing numerous access points--wireless receivers--throughout the home. These should boost the bandwidth of the home wireless network and so strengthen it, making it easier for people to access high quality content, such as audio and video, wirelessly.

"The closer you are to you access points, the bigger your bandwidth is," said Roxanne Gryder, an Intel marketing development manager.

Intel has completed a lab demonstration of the mesh networks project and will begin a home test in a few months, she added.

In another research project, the company is working on technology to provide high-speed broadband access in rural areas. Called "802.11 Last Mile," the technology uses directional antennas to make connections to 802.11 wireless available over a long distance. Intel is testing its wireless technology near its Hillsboro, Ore. offices. So far, the wireless network has achieved a radius of 20 miles and supports about 15 homes.

"The problem is that it's not hugely scalable. It's limited to about 100 users," said Gryder. "It's really a niche way of using 802.11." Still, over time the antennas should improve, which would allow WISPs, or wireless Internet service providers, to add more users.

Another wireless networking hurdle Intel is trying to overcome is seamless switching between wireless, wired and cellular networks using what it calls intelligent roaming. Under this system, people would be able to customize their access preferences to switch their devices from one wireless network to another when it becomes cheaper. At other times, people would be able to automatically float between networks without losing a connection.

This type of network roaming will be the first of the technologies to emerge, according to Jim Johnson, vice president and general manger of the platform networking group at Intel. Wired-wireless roaming will occur in the relatively near future, he said, and within two years, services will likely exist that will let consumers float between wired, 802.11 and cellular connections.