While challenging, Atheros is in a great position to follow through on its plan to combine powerline networking with Wi-Fi—and it is an excellent example of what Smart Energy is all about.
With its long history in Wi-Fi and its more recent purchase of powerline networking specialist Intellon , Atheros is clear about its plan to combine the two and develop a mesh protocol around them for high-speed home networking. But according to Bill McFarland, Atheros’s chief technology officer, there’s a more subtle subplot having to do with the smart grid.
Along with data and video networking, Atheros plans to become a provider of embedded powerline+Wi-Fi communications not just for consumer entertainment devices, but also for devices such as thermistors, washing machines, fridges and other devices around the home. What’s interesting here, and what McFarland pointed out, is that, “Most of the devices you want to control are on the power grid,” meaning it opens wide the door to both wireless and powerline data networking, as well as smart-grid-based power control. That’s a massive opportunity for Atheros, as well as for designers of systems for the home.
However, truth be told, Atheros isn’t the only company running down the embedded Wi-Fi path with smart-grid and myriad other applications in mind. That space is getting more crowded every day, from incumbents like Texas Instruments and Marvell, to newcomers such as embedded specialist Microchip and startups such as Gainspan. In addition, Atheros’s specialty has been in the PC and more recently the mobile handset market, where there’s a pretty well-defined set of target customers, as well as a more limited and well-known set of competitors.
With embedded, it’s a whole new ball game, with thousands of potential customers with tens of thousands of applications, from wireless sensor networks right through to full-fledged wireless networking of myriad consumer devices. Granted, Atheros has some experience in embedded Wi-Fi, just ask Sonos, which used Atheros in its multi-zone Digital Music System.
Why? Because, “The wireless connectivity was the most nerve-wracking part of the whole design and Atheros gave us access to the drivers and all the knobs we needed to tune the system to get the performance we needed," said Andrew Schulert, vice president of product development at Sonos.
That sort of handholding is great, but to go after the embedded space, Atheros needs to both ‘modularize’ its solutions and learn how to work with distributors to get its devices ‘out there’ in a ready-to-use package—with little or no handholding required. That’s hard enough for any product and company, but particularly so for an embedded wireless device and for a company with little experience in the mass-market embedded application.
However, with good design guides and a responsive support team, Atheros can make a good play here, particularly given that it already has PC and access-point sockets in the home that it can leverage to its advantage to be part of a full, seamless home network.
So, if it can get the powerline+Wi-Fi combination down the cost curve, execute upon a seamless networking protocol between the two and get the standards bodies behind it, designers of embedded systems have an exciting communications and energy-monitoring and control option to seriously consider.