Intel Exec: B is Best for Now

An Intel executive explains why the world's largest chipmaker launched the Centrino chipset into the marketplace with only one flavor of 802.11 built in.

NEW YORK -- a, b, a/b, or g?

Anyone attending Intel's new Centrino Wi-Fi-enabled chipset launch Wednesday could not avoid the alphabet soup-like discussions about the different 802.11 wireless LAN networking specifications.

At the same time, the chip maker found itself answering critics who questioned why the company sent Centrino into the marketplace wedded to only one 802.11 version -- 802.11b , commonly known as Wi-Fi .

The components in Centrino, Intel's new Wi-Fi chipset that helps extend battery lives in laptops by using less juice, includes its latest Pentium M processor, the Intel 855 chipset family and a PRO/Wireless 2100 Network Connection card that recognizes Wi-Fi-certified (802.11b) wireless Internet access points.

But given the already-crowded 2.4 GHz band in which Wi-Fi access transmits data, why not build in a chipset that can also recognize 802.11a specifications? After all, tech experts and Intel rivals argue, 802.11a transmits data in the less-cluttered 5MHz band, and at rates of 54 Mbps (megabits per second) using OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing, which enables the transmission of big data files over a radio wave), better for video and audio file transmission than the 11 Mbps transmission rate with Wi-Fi.

Anand Chandrasekhar, an Intel vice president and manager of its mobile platforms group, said the company plans to introduce a dual-band chipset that recognizes both networking specifications by second quarter of this year. He said Centrino's b-only launch follows the logic of ratified standards and the number of b-compatible hotspots that help users access Internet networks.

"We made the choice to go with b because wireless LAN vendors were all b-based," he said. "The vendors wanted a technology that is mature and didn't need debugging. From a validation standpoint, we wanted to be able to validate 802.11a with the same number of access point vendors as we do with 802.11b."

In addition, Chandrasekhar said Intel will roll out with 802.11g-enabled Centrino chipsets by the end of the year -- after the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) has ratified specifications that the technology industry can then design commercial offerings around.

And so goes the alphabet soup discussions about the 802.11 family of specifications: The g-based networking standard transmits data at 20Mbps, roughly twice 802.11b's 11 Mbps rate. But g also clashes with b, added Samuel Dusi, a director in IBM's personal computing division, because it also operates in the same 2.4 GHz radio frequency as 802.11b, the current Wi-Fi champ.

Hence, Intel's decision to go where the market is, instead of where it is expected to go before technology working groups agree on standards.

For example, McDonald's restaurants, one of the companies participating in Intel's launch of its Centrino chipset product Wednesday, is sticking with b-compatible Wi-Fi. With the help of Cometa Networks, a wireless access provider funded by Intel, IBM and AT&T, the fast-food franchise is offering "bits and bites," high-speed broadband Internet access in select Manhattan locations. After the pilot test, the company plans to roll out more networks in its stores, which also use the technology internally to track inventory and improve store management.

The same is true with Borders Books and Hilton Hotels, who have announced they are rolling out Wi-Fi networks for their customers.

Chandrasekhar said in addition to consumer market offerings, the corporate environment offering wireless LAN is mostly b-based as well, at least for the next year to 18 months.

"We don't have the same breadth of supply on the a band as we do on b," he told internetnews.com. "So it was a very conscious decision because we're building a brand that stands for technology and safety. Given that the demand is on b, we chose to say, 'OK, let's go to market with b.' We will introduce the a/b chipset in Q2 so our customers get a choice. And once the g standard is ratified, we'll have them by the end of the year."

The introduction of the Centrino chipset in the latest generation of more lightweight laptops comes as sales of laptop computers continue to outpace desktop sales, and as many enterprise customers realize they can no longer put off upgrades in their networks.

According to technology research firm Gartner , worldwide shipments of mobile computers, which includes laptops and tablet computers, totaled 30.1 million in 2002, an increase of 11 percent from the prior year. Shipments of desktop computers, meanwhile, inched up by 3 percent to 98.3 million in the same time frame, the firm said.

It's that kind of data -- combined with enterprises considering mobile laptop purchases in their upgrade decisions and a rise in 802.11b-compatible networks -- that has Intel and its partner companies in the technology industry looking with hope at the Centrino launch.

"Once you build in communications into a computing device it changes the usage paradigm," Chandrasekhar said. "The footprint of the device could look the same, but once you build in communications, people use it differently. Wi-Fi shifts that usage model" and makes the device truly more personal to the user. And, in keeping with the alphabet soup discussion, "it puts the P back in PC."






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