Two chipmakers unveil combo Wi-Fi chips

Broadcom and Royal Philips Electronics introduce new Wi-Fi chips that combine 802.11 standards as they look to optimize processors for the largest segment of the market: PCs and PC peripherals.

Richard Shim
Richard Shim Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Richard Shim
writes about gadgets big and small.
3 min read
Broadcom and Royal Philips Electronics introduced new Wi-Fi chips Monday that combine 802.11 standards as they look to optimize their processors for the largest segment of the market: PCs and PC peripherals.

Both companies announced combination 802.11a/802.11g chips as well as new 802.11g chips. Broadcom emphasized the reduced power consumption levels of its new AirForce 802.11g-based chips and 802.11g/802.11a-based chips. Philips Semiconductor, the chipmaking division of Philips, emphasized the range of its new chips. Both companies are targeting wireless network cards, access points, PCs and PC peripherals.

"The largest segment of the Wi-Fi market has been PCs and PC peripherals," said Will Strauss, an analyst with research firm Forward Concepts, who expects Wi-Fi chipset revenue to grow from $364 million in 2002 to $1.6 billion by 2005.

A recently announced delay from Intel of its entry into the Wi-Fi chipmaking market is giving rival chipmakers some breathing room, as many expect Intel's entry into the market to further erode already thin profit margins for all Wi-Fi parts.

The announcements from Broadcom and Philips are part of an expected trend among chipmakers to offer processors that combine 802.11 standards and help to unify the wireless networking market so consumers and businesses won't have to pick one standard over another. Products using the combination chips are expected to be on the market in the beginning of next year.

There are three Wi-Fi standards being used in the industry. Two of them, 802.11g and 802.11b, are compatible and transmit data in the 2.4GHz band of the radio spectrum, while 802.11a is not compatible and transmits data in the 5GHz range. Since the radio bands used by the standards are unlicensed, use of the radio waves is essentially free, making wireless networking technology affordable for consumers.

However, they can also lead to interference issues. The 5GHz band is less crowded with devices, making it what many consider to be a cleaner band. Microwaves and cordless phones use the 2.4GHz band and can interfere with networking gear that use the 802.11g and 802.1b standards. Data is transmitted wirelessly at 54 megabits per second with the 802.11g and 802.11a standards, while the 802.11b standard transmits at 11mbps.

Both companies have given sample chips to key manufacturing customers and are preparing for volume shipments. Chips from Philips cost $16 in sample quantities. Broadcom would not disclose chip prices, but said that client cards will cost resellers less than $30.

The new AirForce chips use the same power management software used in its OneChip products, introduced last week. They consume 75 percent less power than other wireless chips, giving notebooks up to 20 minutes more battery life, according to Jeff Abramowitz, senior director of wireless networking at Broadcom. Reducing battery life is part of the company's overall Wi-Fi strategy.

Philips' new chips extend the range of wireless networks under optimal conditions--for networks using the 802.11b standard the range is up to 490 feet, for networks using 802.11g the range is 320 feet, and for networks using 802.11a it's 230 feet. Under optimal conditions, wireless networks tend to top out at 300 feet.

"These new chips will help to springboard us from the PC market to the consumer electronics space," said Julie Tipton, product line manager for wireless local area networks at Philips.

Extending the range and improving digital media streaming are among the features Philips is concentrating on in it Wi-Fi efforts. Philips is using a draft version of the 802.11e quality-of-service specification in its new chips.

In related news Monday, chipmaking start-up Atheros also announced new Wi-Fi chips that extend the range and reduce the power consumption of 802.11 wireless networks.