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Intel's vision: A wireless melting pot

Can the whole motley crew of wireless technologies learn to live together? The chipmaker says yes, they can.

PALO ALTO, Calif.--The different strands of wireless technology will one day work in harmony, Intel predicts.

The chipmaker is spreading its efforts across a number of wireless technologies, including Wi-Fi, WiMax and next-generation cellular, because these will all coexist over time, Intel executives told a meeting here Friday to discuss the future of the wireless and mobile industries.

"Any which way you look at it, there will be multiple networks," said Sean Maloney, an executive vice president in Intel's communications group. Though each technology will handle its own particular task and may be used differently from region to region, they will all likely be able to work together, he added.

Wireless communications are increasingly seen by the chipmaker as key to its fortunes. The company has invested in the technology by incorporating it into products for notebook PCs, such as its Centrino bundle, and developing new types of communications chips.

Government policy toward spectrum allocation will play a key part in allowing wireless technologies to coexist, Maloney said, because the more technologies multiply, the greater the chances of interference between networks. For that reason, too, maximizing the benefits of already limited bands will also become more important, he said.

The Federal Communications Commission has been working to improve spectrum management, and it recently reorganized bands for wireless broadband connectivity. Technology and telecommunications companies have been pushing to make lower- and under-utilized radio bands available for wireless communications.

"Lower bands are prime real estate," Maloney said. The use of lower bands in the spectrum allows signals to be sent farther and more reliably than those in higher bands. That could ultimately lead to lower-cost gear and service, Maloney said.

The development of wireless standards to promote interoperability will also help lower the cost of wireless products and service, he said. The latest to get the wireless broadband market excited is 802.16-2004, the technology behind WiMax interoperability.

South Korea is again leading the way by mandating the use of the 802.16e specification for wireless broadband service, Maloney said, even though it has not been finalized as a standard yet.

WiMax will be merged with Wi-Fi over time, Maloney said. WiMax technology provides high-speed Internet access over a range of several miles, while Wi-Fi does the same job within a range of hundreds of feet. However, Maloney predicted that demand for Wi-Fi would not disappear overnight, pointing out that its usage is doubling every month.

In a move to improve its position in the Wi-Fi business, Intel recently started shipping combination 802.11g and 802.11a chips. Notebooks using the processor will be available in this quarter, according to Jim Johnson, general manager of wireless networking at Intel.

The combination chip will be used in Sonoma, which represents the next generation of the company's Centrino mobile technology and includes the processor, a chipset and a Wi-Fi wireless module.

Alviso, a key chipset to be used in Sonoma, has been postponed by Intel until early 2005. However, the delay won't be material to the chipmaker's financial results, said Anand Chandrasekher, general manager of Intel's mobile platform group.

"All elements of the platform (Sonoma) will be in production this year and revenue from the platform will be realized this year," Chandrasekher said.

Notebooks using Sonoma are expected to be available in early next year.

Intel is working to create, by 2010, notebooks that can run all day on a single battery charge, Chandrasekher said.

"Collectively, as an industry, we have to come together on this vision," Chandrasekher said.

The chipmaker added that, through a research project, it has developed an 802.11a CMOS transceiver chip, which, if applied commercially, could lead to lower power and cheaper radio chips that can support multiple wireless-networking technologies.