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Wi-Fi on one chip

Broadcom's wireless offering

WLAN specialist Broadcom today unveiled what it claims to be the world's smallest truly all-in-one wireless chip for mobile devices, the AirForce OneChip.

IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN technology, offering a maximum carrying capacity of 11Mbps (megabits per second), is already available in some PDAs and in add-on devices such as cards that fit in CompactFlash slots. Broadcom says the integration of the whole Wi-Fi system into a single chip means less drain on a PDA's battery as well as lower cost and smaller size.

OneChip consumes an average of 85 percent less power than other Wi-Fi systems on the market, according to Broadcom. Existing Wi-Fi components on handhelds can consume half the battery's power, thereby halving battery life, according to Jeff Abramowitz, senior director of wireless LAN marketing at Broadcom.

Future applications of OneChip could include digital cameras, MP3 music players and Wi-Fi VOIP (voice over internet protocol) phones, he said.

But the market for Wi-Fi on handheld devices has not been large so far, according to analysts at research firm Gartner, Broadcom is looking to open up that market by introducing new hardware.

"Clearly the hope is that now this is available, developers of systems that previously wouldn't have looked at wireless LAN ... now will look at it," said Gartner analyst Joe Byrne.

Though Gartner is optimistic about the integration of wireless LAN capability into PDAs, the consulting company is more cautious about its popularity on mobile phones.

Mobile phones already communicate with a network and increasingly have fairly high-speed wireless data access through technologies such as CDMA2000 1x (code division multiple access) and GPRS (general packet radio service). In addition, they have fairly small screens and limited features for data input, said Gartner analyst Michael King. The higher speed connectivity offered by Wi-Fi could be overkill, he said.

"It's akin to hooking a fire hose up to a drinking fountain," King said.

However, there may be some situations in which Wi-Fi would come in handy on a combination PDA-phone. For example, an employee who carries that device into a meeting at company headquarters might want to access email via the corporate wireless LAN rather than the carrier's data network because it's faster and there are no service charges.

Another issue for Broadcom is the spectre of Intel's Centrino offering for notebooks, which integrates Wi-Fi functionality into the system's main chipset. Broadcom will have limited opportunity to compete against Centrino on the notebook side, which represents the lion's share of the overall Wi-Fi market, so it needs to find or cultivate new markets, Byrne said.

Broadcom integrated an 802.11b baseband processor, a power amplifier, a MAC (media access controller) and all other radio components, including the 2.4GHz radio itself, into a single chip. That brings the size of a complete chip module down to 14.8x26.5mm (0.58x1.04in), about one-seventh the size of Broadcom's current Wi-Fi module for PCI cards.

In addition to smaller chip size and greater integration, Broadcom has cut Wi-Fi power consumption with software it calls SuperStandby. SuperStandby wakes up the minimum amount of circuitry on the chip for the shortest possible time to check for incoming data, according to the company. As a result, OneChip consumes 97 percent less power in standby mode than does Intel's Centrino chipset for notebooks.

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