Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11b) has won the current battle for wireless home networking. It's fine for connecting multiple PCs to a broadband modem, but doesn't provide sufficient bandwidth for digital video, especially for high-definition TV - which requires about 30 Mbps. In previous issues of BBHR, we have written about the looming competition between 802.11a and 802.11g (and HiperLAN2 in Europe). These are competing standards which push the speed of wireless networking to 54 Mbps and higher. 802.11g operates in the same 2.4 Ghz spectrum as 802.11b, while 802.11a and HiperLAN2 operate in the 5 GHz spectrum.
To learn more about the prospects for 802.11a, we spoke with Bruce Sanguinetti, the CEO and President of Bermai. A startup company, Bermai has operated in "stealth mode" for some time, and has just announced its first products, centered on an "ultra-integrated" system-on-a-chip for 802.11a. The chip can be used to create access points and NICs for indoor wireless LANs, and for outdoor broadband wireless access.
Bruce started by providing some background information on Bermai. Bruce has had lots of experience leading companies in the wireless field, and observed that they tend to be strong in either analog or digital, but rarely in both. Bermai was founded by two professors from the University of Minnesota, one specializing in analog and the other in digital technology. They run the development lab near St. Paul, Minnesota, while Bruce is based in Palo Alto, California.
In addition to its chip, Bermai has created reference designs for PC Card and PCI NICs and for access points. Both designs are available as 11a only or as dual-mode 11a/11b. To show us how highly integrated the chip is, Bruce showed us the picture of the 11a Reference Board on their website, and pointed out that "besides power conditioning, it needs only six components to support the chip - four of them capacitors."
He said that Bermai saw three distinct market segments for 802.11a and Bermai:
Bruce observed that "home networkers are not rushing out to buy 11a right now. It won't happen until there's a paradigm shift in the home" as home entertainment - mainly video - becomes an important component. So he thinks that 802.11a wireless LANs will appeal mainly to enterprises for now, while there's a significant difference between 11b and 11a pricing. By next near, the pricing gap will narrow.
Bruce thinks that many consumer electronics companies will build wireless technology into their products. He believes that many will provide both wired and wireless networking, just as many of today's notebook PCs include both Ethernet and Wi-Fi.
So he thinks that the near-term opportunity for 11a lies in the enterprise market. Even though "the enterprise IP people are doing it begrudgingly" he thinks that "the first wave of 11a into enterprises is going to explode" since it provides more bandwidth and better security than 11b.
Many advocates of other technologies have told us that 802.11a will have a much shorter range than .11b, and we asked Bruce what coverage he expected. He said he was sure that 11a would provide higher performance than 11b at any range, principally due to the OFDM modulation scheme. He said he was looking forward to side-by-side comparisons to resolve the question.
Finally, we asked about the pricing of 11a versus 11b. He said that Bermai's goal was to get a very low "bill of materials" (BOM) cost: "The 11b chips are heading to a $10 cost - we will have a comparably low cost."
( www.bermai.com )
For background material on wireless home networking, please visit ( www.bbhcentral.com/home.html#wireless_networking ) on our website.