Startup Offers Boost To Wi Fi Home Network Products

A startup outfit claims it has made lemonade out of one of Wi Fi's biggest lemons, promising a chip set that can boost bandwidth and reach for the wireless technology popular in broadband home networks.

Now, all Airgo Networks must do is sell that drink to an original equipment manufacturer partner, thereby gaining a foothold in the somewhat unruly consumer wireless home-networking market.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Airgo unveiled its AGN100 Wi Fi chipset last week, promising its multiple antenna system can double 802.11g's maximum 54 Megabits per second of bandwidth at two to six times the range of existing chipsets — all while conforming to the core wireless 802.11 standards.

The "secret sauce" involves turning an old enemy of transmission technology — multipath interference — into an ally.

Multipath interference occurs when wireless signals scatter over a terrain, bouncing off objects and arriving at the access point out of phase — effectively blurring the original signal. Traditionally, technologies have sought to focus on the strongest of the incoming signals, but this effectively whittles down the bandwidth and range of the signal.

"In contrast, what this does is listens in all directions at the same time, and the effect of having all of those signals bounce and reflect and arrive at your receiver is that some spots in the air can have a very strong signal, and the spots very close to them especially have a very weak signal," explained Carl Temme, Airgo's director of marketing. "So by simultaneously processing all those antennas, you can get a strong signal."

To test the system, Airgo looked to its own headquarters, replacing nine wireless local-area network (LAN) access points, able to pump out 500 Kbps average throughput per user, with two access points that can to push 2 Mbps to each user.

The typical dropoff in throughput for users further from the access point, usually noticeable starting at about 17 feet, didn't occur in the system, Temme said. The Airgo system didn't drop off until more than 100 feet.

In addition, Airgo access points can interface with devices carrying standard wireless 802.11 LAN cards, and conversely, Airgo wireless LAN cards can tap into standard 802.11 base stations.

Mixing the two schemes doesn't allow for the doubling of throughput — for that, the access point and end devices have to be Airgo-equipped — but users can still see an increase in performance, Temme said.

"The speeds that you are getting to your laptop will be faster with Airgo than with somebody else's technology, and that's because using the smart antenna approach, our devices are just much better listeners — much more sensitive listeners to the wireless transmission," he said.

The key for Airgo will be securing an electronics manufacturing partner, and in that Airgo already has netted an unnamed design partner that is now building cards based on the chip set.

"In the next few months, we should be in the position of announcing not only them, but also OEM customers," Temme said.

It's a pitch that may spark some interest among makers of wireless cable modems, particularly with the advent of multimedia home-networking systems that ship heavy video files between computers and digital set-top boxes.

"Those are the types of things that will increase the need for bandwidth in the home," said Linksys Corp. director of product management Steve Troyer. "We think [802.11]g is adequate for the near-term, but certainly we are looking at every solution that is out there.

"We've actually had initial discussions with Airgo, but at the end of the day, any technology that we decide to go with is going to have to stand on its own merits, in terms of both the features and functionality, but also the value proposition with the customer and how much they are willing to pay for it."

But Airgo is not the only company that has come courting with wireless LAN technology improvements, Troyer said.

"We've looked at a number of different offerings to increase range, increase throughput," Troyer said. "They are not the only ones out there that are making claims like this."

Similarly, Toshiba America Information Systems is also on the lookout for technology that can improve its wireless cable modem products.

"The question of whether we would like to have a wireless tech perform like our wired 10/100 Ethernet technology performs — 100 Megabits, regardless of where you are in the network — the answer I would think would be a resounding 'yes,'" said Chris Boring, marketing communications manager for Toshiba's network products division. "Of course, you would want it to perform that way if that were easily achievable, especially as we get into some of these newer applications."

And if such technology does expand the range at which customers can gain a good throughput, "again, that is something that helps in an all-wireless deployment," Boring said.

In the meantime, Toshiba has been working with MSOs to train technicians on where best to place wireless 802.11 access points to reach all of the computers in a customer's home.

"For the most part, that is satisfactory, but there are situations in very large homes or homes that have certain structural issues that would prevent the wireless technology from working as well as would be expected, where something like this would be helpful," Boring said.