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Single-stream 11n chips attack Wi-Fi mainstream

Posted: 30 Oct 2008     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:802.11n  mainstream Wi-Fi  single-stream 11n  single antenna 

Atheros Communications Inc. will try to drive 802.11n into mainstream Wi-Fi markets with a new line of chips using a streamlined version of the specification. The Atheros Align family uses only a single antenna to target 11g price points.

Analysts said they expect other Wi-Fi chip makers to follow suit with their own single-stream 11n products. However, they also cautioned that the 11n market may face confusion from the emerging diversity of configurations.

Today most 802.11n products use 2x2 MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) antennas to deliver as much as ten times the throughput of older 11g devices. However at nearly twice the cost, the 11n devices command only about a third the market share of 11g, despite the fact the Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying draft 11n products in June 2007.

In the second quarter of 2008, revenue for draft 11n products accounted for 21 per cent of the market compared to 64 per cent for 802.11g and 15 per cent for multi-mode b/g/a, according to Victoria Fodale, a senior analyst with market watcher In-Stat.

"We had OEMs coming to us with plans to build 2009-10 devices with Wi-Fi, but they wanted to use .11g," said Todd Antes, vice president of marketing at Atheros. "It was clear to us the next large opportunity for .11n was to move legacy .11g designs up to a more efficient standard," he added.

By stripping out support for multiple radios, Atheros is betting it can create a new class of higher volume 11n devices that hit the estimated Rs.129.03 to Rs.215.05 ($3-5) pricing of 11g parts but deliver better performance.

"The price/value proposition is clear, but there is the potential for consumer confusion regarding product compatibility since the 11n specification allows for one, two, three, or even four spatial streams," said Fodale of In-Stat.

Indeed, Quantenna recently became the latest of several start-ups to debut 11n chips with aggressive MIMO configurations, aiming at support for whole home Wi-Fi and high definition video. Antes suggested the Wi-Fi Alliance is working on a solution to let users mix and match different variants of 11n.

"The 11n standard is much richer than anything we've had to work with before, covering from one- to four-stream products," Antes said. "We believe there is opportunity for future three- and four-stream products, but you need to have both the client and router products to deliver the performance and we think that ecosystem is probably a year or more away," he added

End of the road for 11g?

In the meantime, analysts expect other Wi-Fi players such as Broadcom and Marvell may roll their own single-stream products.

"There was some good logic in the initial leap of the industry to two-stream products because there was a substantial performance improvement, but clearly it left openings at the lower end for one-stream products," said Antes.

Redpine Signals recently released an 802.11n single stream module for handsets and other small form factor devices, said Fodale. "Given the competitive dynamics of this market, I wouldn't be surprised to see similar announcements from other chipset vendors soon," she added.

Antes would not disclose Atheros' chip pricing, but he said OEMs could use the Align parts to build systems that hit the price points of current 11g routers and gateways.

"There was a huge difference in price between 11n and 11g that will narrow significantly now," said Craig Mathias, principal of consulting form Farpoint Group. "This is the end of the road for 11g, because there's no cost advantage anymore," he said.

"We expect [single-stream 11n] will become a competitive space because this is key to low end notebooks and handsets as well," Mathias added.

Atheros estimates its Align parts can deliver two to four times the throughput of 11g at similar or better distances while maintaining lower power consumption.

Specifically, the Align chips can deliver 50Mbps TCP throughput at close range using 20 MHz channels (107Mbps using 40 MHz channels) compared to 24Mbps for 11g. At distances of 150 meters, Align delivers 10Mbps compared to 5Mbps for 11g, Atheros said.

The chips consume about 1500 mW in active transmit mode and about 140 mW in idle. That compares to about 1750 mW and 185 mW for 11g, according to Atheros.

Atheros is initially rolling out three Align products to serve PC and consumer client systems as well as routers and gateways.

The AR9285 is PCI Express version in an 8x8mm package able to ride on a two-layer mini-card and aimed at low-end desktops and notebooks. The AR9271 is an embedded USB version for low cost consumer devices ranging from gateways and set-top boxes to printers and TVs.

Both client chips integrate base band and radio components including a power amplifier and low-noise amplifier. The USB version also includes an on-board processor capable of handling the Wi-Fi software stack.

The AR9002AP-IS is a two-chip set geared for access points and routers. It uses the same integrated base band and radio as the client chips and links the part via Express to a network processor that includes a five-port Fast Ether net switch and power management.

Antes said Atheros plans other members of the Align family, presumably including devices for handsets.

The router and PC devices are sampling now. The USB device will sample before the end of the year.

-Rick Merritt
EE Times

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