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Atheros pushes Wi-Fi into ZigBee’s territory

Wi-Fi is spreading its tentacles in all directions, up towards HD video networks and now down into ZigBee’s ultra-low power, embedded territory

By PETER WHITE

Published: 21 April, 2011

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Wi-Fi is spreading its tentacles in all directions, up towards HD video networks and now down into ZigBee’s ultra-low power, embedded territory. The Wi-Fi standards have been closing in on ZigBee and Bluetooth for some time, and now Atheros is set to launch embedded chips, a move that is sure to be emulated by its rivals.

The company, which is being acquired by Qualcomm, has also announced a software developer's kit for its forthcoming powerline chip, which will support the HomePlug GreenPHY specification. Both moves extend a strategy, articulated when Atheros bought powerline specialist Intellon in September 2009. It said then it aimed to combine Wi-Fi and powerline connections to create an integrated full-home network, supporting the full range of home internet devices from high bandwidth media and video players to security or energy control gadgets.

The embedded Wi-Fi launch, to be made later this year, will take a wireless major into a space currently occupied by start-ups like ZeroG, G2 Microsystems, GainSpan and Ozmo. G2 has already been acquired by Roving Networks and the others may find themselves acquisition targets (Microchip is looking to sell ZeroG’s embedded WLan business). Atheros’ rivals in home networking, such as Broadcom and Marvell, are sure to follow its lead. Both have acquired Spanish powerline start-ups, DS2 and Gigle respectively. Broadcom says it will support whole-home networks based on powerline, MoCA, Wi-Fi and the forthcoming G-hn. CSR and Texas Instruments are also expected to move into this space.

Tim Colleran, director of marketing for Atheros’ smart home and building group, himself came from ZeroG. He told EETimes that the promised chips would be "a critical building block" for the firm and added: "There's a tremendous interest in Wi-Fi solutions in this space. The design activity is starting to ramp in a significant way.” However, he sounded a note of caution: "Those products will hit in 2012, but significant revenues are still a good 24 months out."

"We are making the assumption any major Wi-Fi chip supplier will have interest in this space, but you have to temper that interest against competing technologies and market conditions," Craig Mathias, principal of consulting firm Farpoint Group, told EETimes. “NFC is also getting a boost lately, and UltraWideBand is not dead. I'm a bit skeptical of the short term opportunity, but in the long term you can bet this will happen.”

Atheros’ low power Wi-Fi and powerline chips will both support the Smart Energy Profile 2.0 specification for smart grid meters. It is now shipping the SDK for its upcoming Green PHY powerline chip. Green PHY is a simplified version of the HomePlug AV specification, for low power devices and home energy networks.

At least four companies currently offer HomePlug AV chips, and several will add Green PHY (GP) chips from late this year, including Broadcom/Gigle. "We expect that the application layer for HomePlug GP mainly will be the Smart Energy 2.0 Application Profile," said a HomePlug spokeswoman. "HomePlug is working with other industry groups such as the Wi-Fi Alliance and Zigbee Alliance to ensure certification and interoperability at the network and applications layers."

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