Qualcomm's WiFi Joins with Airgo to Battle Intel's WiMAX

Last Sunday, network equipment giant Qualcomm made an announcement with a one-two punch: It's acquiring leading WiFi engineering firm Airgo Networks, and it will be marketing Airgo's upcoming "802.11n Draft 2.0-compliant" chipset. Airgo was striking out on its own; now it has a huge backer behind it, in what promises to be a fierce battle with Intel for the mobile wireless broadband platform turf.

It's still a month before CES 2007, but a fresh set of battle lines is already being drawn in the critical high-speed wireless networking market. With Qualcomm's announcement on Sunday that it's acquiring Airgo Networks, perhaps the earliest producer of MIMO multiple-antenna 802.11g equipment in the business, it's positioning itself squarely against Intel, the lead architect and champion of WiMAX technology, in a showdown that could determine which will hold title to the mobile connectivity platform that succeeds today's Centrino.

What the Airgo acquisition gives Qualcomm now that it didn't have before was an active production line for the fastest throughput equipment that purports to follow the latest 802.11n 2.0 draft proposal put forth before the IEEE standards body.

The "11n" standard has been in developmental limbo for the better part of this year, due in large part, according to industry observers, to technical incompatibilities between the 11n 1.0 draft -- which overwhelmingly failed an IEEE vote last May -- and both the specifications and the spectrum of 802.11b and 11g.

Currently, 802.11g compliant WiFi products are capable of delivering maximum throughput of 54 megabits per second (Mbps). The first 802.11n networking gear was expected to initially double that maximum rate to 108 Mbps, with successive doublings to follow as its integrated MIMO technology became further exploited.

Meanwhile, WiMAX proponents state its theoretical maximum throughput is about 75 Mbps. However, independent observers of both technologies state that their real-world sustained throughput rates will likely be 45 Mbps, in practice.

So are we looking at another Blu-ray vs. HD DVD-style battle, this time in the high-speed wireless networking space, where many consumers can't really tell a difference between the two players except for their brands and the quantity of their respective supporters?

Probably not, due particularly to Airgo's colorful recent history, and the moves it has forced its competitors to make. Last March, Airgo put forth a prospective 11n standard, which network engineers discovered to have two fatal flaws: First, it broke downward compatibility with existing 11b and 11g equipment. Second, simply deploying 11n could step on portions of the spectrum used by 11g, forcing existing networking equipment in the vicinity of 11n to work more slowly, if not go dark altogether.

A majority of engineers voted against the proposed 1.0 draft in May, and the result drove Airgo to proceed with "True MIMO" technology on its own. Meanwhile, Airgo competitors D-Link, Netgear, and the Linksys division of networking giant Cisco forked off on a different path, producing "pre-11n" routers that boast of being faster than 11g, but which won't necessarily meet with the final 802.11n specifications when -- or if -- it's finally approved.

Now, Airgo is going forth with its next step of the plan: the introduction of a new line of WiFi chipsets that claim to follow the 11n Draft 2.0 specifications, which IEEE members will only get their first chance to vote on in March. This time, the company is promising both downward compatibility with 11a, 11b, and 11g, and "neighbor-friendly" relationships with existing WiFi equipment within its service range.

But this time, it will be Qualcomm's logo that will accompany Airgo's; and in certain circles, 800 pounds isn't exactly a proper weight estimate for that particular gorilla. What's now being called "True MIMO Gen-N" technology now has its best chance for success yet, though it still needs a 75% super-majority among IEEE engineers for it to be adopted as the 802.11n Draft 2.0 standard.

This means, as the first Gen-N equipment premieres at CES 2007 in Las Vegas, as Qualcomm now promises, it has to win over hearts and minds from the WiMAX camp, and not just by a nose.

It will not be an easy sell. As an industry player, Qualcomm is respected in the same way Jim Croce once advised you don't mess around with Big Jim. As Qualcomm's ongoing fearless patent battle with Broadcom makes clear, it can do battle in the marketplace, or if that doesn't work, it can do battle just as hard in the courtroom. That said, IEEE ballots are anonymous, which could put Qualcomm in the position of the player most eligible for being voted off the island.

Couple that with the fact, as veteran networking industry observer Glenn Fleischman pointed out, it'll be hard to convince potential partners that the new Airgo chipset is Draft 2.0-compliant, when everyone knows Draft 2.0 is hardly complete. At present, writes Fleischman, there are no fewer than 370 technical comments - with more certain to come - for the IEEE to address, before the matter can even come to a vote. Qualcomm certainly has partners; the question for next month at CES is, will it have friends?

"So I have to ask - what kind of crack is Airgo/Qualcomm smoking, and how do I get me some?" wrote Fleischman. "I'd love to be able to exist simultaneously four months in the future and today; it would make investing much easier."

Four months from now, though, conceivably Qualcomm and Airgo may not be much further along than they are today, if they're truly planning to abide by the promise of following what they believe or hope to be the final 11n standard - whose fulfillment Fleischman believes is entirely impossible, no matter the outcome. Network vendors and suppliers attending CES next month may agree, but would they be willing to say that to Qualcomm's face?

The outcome is nowhere near certain. Remember, the opposition here is Intel, not Broadcom. And we may all be singing a different kind of story -- maybe on a different frequency -- if Big Jim hits the floor.

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