The mushrooming Wi-FI wireless LAN market may end up with a potpourri of different chip solutions to meet the various IEEE 802.11 standards.
All must meet the IEEE-standard interface connection standards, but some may accomplish this with non-standard chip approaches. At the very least, the proliferation of proposed WLAN chips could present system builders with a confusing array of options.
Many in the WLAN industry believe the current miniPCI card for WLAN in mobile PCs is due for replacement. The card is connected by a relatively long coaxial cable to the antenna on the back of the PC. That can lead to cross-talk and interference issues and adds to WLAN subsystem cost.
But vendors are divided over exactly what should replace the miniPCI card.
The JEDEC Solid State Technology Association J61 committee is considering at least four different designs for possible WLAN partitioning. As with all standards, JEDEC's goal is to increase competition by allowing the mixing and matching of baseband, MAC, and RF chips from different vendors.
However, several proposals would lead to radically different MAC chips. One concept would divide the MAC chip into a so-called Upper MAC for non-time-critical functions, such as encryption, and a Lower MAC for time-critical operations, such as turning the transmitter on and off. The special MAC chip may not adhere to an open standard, or could even be proprietary.
Further complicating the standards agenda is the rush by WLAN chipmakers to integrate the various baseband, MAC, and even analog functions on a single chip. Core-logic chipset companies are looking at integrating some of the WLAN functions into their products. Such vendor-specific solutions do not always lend themselves to industry standards.
Other concepts would eliminate some of the MAC hardware functions altogether. These proposals would perform the non-time-critical MAC and digital operations in software, connecting through standard USB 2.0 or PCI Express interfaces.
Whatever new WLAN PC partitioning solutions emerge, some face a potential regulatory challenge. The RF portion must pass certification by the Federal Communications Commission. If the RF and other WLAN chips are tightly coupled on the motherboard, the entire circuit board is considered "a radio" and must be certified by the FCC. That could become a nightmare if every motherboard vendor with WLAN chips must get FCC certification.
Many in the WLAN industry are pressing the FCC to start a rule making procedure to allow WLAN radio certification in such cases without having to test each and every motherboard.
The hodge-podge of post-miniPCI solutions won't unduly slow WiFI market demand. But how the wide range of alternatives play out in the market could very well determine winners and losers among chip vendors.