Intel-Led Alliance Stirs Angst Over Wireless Spec's Future

By working outside of the IEEE's 802.11n next-generation task group, Intel has angered industry participants who accuse the Intel-led alliance of everything from co-opting the standards process to outright antitrust violations.



MANHASSET, N.Y. — Intel has convinced fellow chip makers Broadcom, Atheros and Marvell to join forces outside of an IEEE wireless LAN group to develop an interoperable physical and media access control (MAC) layer scheduled to be presented for IEEE acceptance by November.

By working independently of the IEEE's 802.11n next-generation task group, Intel has angered task group members who accuse the Intel-led alliance of everything from co-opting the IEEE process to outright antitrust violations that could draw Federal Trade Commission (FTC) scrutiny.

Suspicions have been amplified by the PC-centric nature of the alliance as well as the secretive approach the group has taken, including the signing of nondisclosure agreements. The omission of Airgo Networks Inc. (Palo Alto, Calif.) from the alliance has also fueled accusations that the alliance is trying to offset Airgo’s competitive advantage.

Airgo is the only company shipping a multiple input, multiple output (MIMO) product. All agree that MIMO will be integral to whatever spec comes out of the 802.11n group,. Airgo is claiming a two-year advantage over competitors.

Intel's gambit comes at a critical time for the task group who's members are under customer pressure to complete next-generation WLAN implementations by early next year. Continued pressure from proliferating ultrawideband (UWB) options for video only add to the pressure.

The two groups backing proposals before the IEEE agreed to merge their efforts last July. They are working under a November deadline to complete a converged proposal. The groups are: WWiSE, which is led by chip makers Broadcom, Texas Instruments, STMicroelectronics and Airgo; and TGnSynch, led by Intel, Agere, Atheros and Marvell.

“It’s now a two-horse race to November,” said George Elantis, an engineering manager at STMicroelecronics (San Jose, Calif.), referring to the similar timelines the IEEE task group and the Intel-led alliance have set. “This [outside alliances] has been tried before, and while they say it’s to speed things up, I’m not convinced. But you can’t prevent it from happening,” he said.

Airgo President Greg Raleigh agreed that the Intel move would further delay the standards process.

Elantis also worries that the new alliance would not cater to core customers — namely, handset manufacturers — given its PC focus. Anuj Batra, a member of the technical staff at Texas Instruments, said he spoke with Intel about the plan and remains neutral. “We’ve taken a look . . . and we’re not in favor or against it,” he said.

"We would prefer an IEEE specification,” he added, which is important for the range of applications TI is targeting. Asked about antitrust accusations leveled against Intel in response to formation of the alliance, Batra responded, “Antitrust is always a concern.”

Intel, Atheros and Broadcom declined to comment, but Paramesh Gopi, general manager of Marvell Semiconductor Inc.’s Embedded and Emerging Business Unit (Sunnyvale, Calif.), defended the group’s approach. “We need to standardize on the codings and the basic elements of the MAC so that we have interoperability between all the silicon players and [achieve] some level of convergence into the specifications so we don’t have to keep stalling it and delaying it for commercial deployment," Gopi said.

The goal, he added, is to develop a baseline specification for laptops that allows them to implement a basic 2x3 or 4x4 MIMO system. "Keep in mind that we want the flexibility to discuss multicast and network and application-level interoperability to keep it extensible,” Gopi said. Extensibility will eventually include low-power modes for handsets. “Whatever gets done in the handset will probably fall out of what we’re doing here. We can’t alienate these guys as they’ll be the main drivers.”

While conceding that Airgo succeeded in its current implementation which is shipping in routers from Linksys and D-Link, Gopi said he views Airgo's approach as a dead end. “Airgo has no notion of how to implement a handset, they’ve never done one,” he said. “When you’re trying to build a standard that’s going to be far reaching and go into many platforms, you have to get out of the retail mindset and be a little more charitable and think of a platform that’s has to extend.”

While many claim the alliance is delaying a spec and will lead to nonstandard silicon, Gopi disagreed. "The same guys that go to the IEEE meetings are part of this alliance. We can’t go and build a Broadcom, Intel, Atheros, Marvell solution without it being blessed by the IEEE — no one is going to accept that,” he said.

Alliance members continue to drive the specification within the IEEE, he added." If the four silicon vendors can’t get together and decide on interoperabilty and make the right tradeoffs, we’ll be bogged down by a standards process which is unforgiving in terms of time. We might as well get it settled offline. It in no way slows down the standards process.”

The secretive nature of the discussions enables the free flow of ideas within the alliance without fear of intellectual property being compromised, said Gopi. “We don’t want to get stuck in any legal issues with anyone."

He also dismissed antitrust allegations. "The only people who are concerned about antitrust issues are those who are shipping nonstandard, noninteroperable products today, because to them it’s taking away their market share,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. We’re trying to do a good thing here. No one is bypassing the IEEE.”

Howard Morse, a partner in the law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath (Washington), argued otherwise. The former assistant director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition said the new wireless alliance raises antitrust issues, particularly given the large market share held by the four members.

IEEE members are free to hold outside discussions. For example, the WiMedia Alliance went so far as to hold its group meetings at the same time as the still-deadlocked IEEE 802.15.3a ultrawideband task group. The difference, however, is that there was no "market share" for UWB products. In this instance, Intel, Broadcom, Atheros and Marvell together wield market power, particularly for laptops. Morse said companies holding large market shares and working together outside of a standards group to slow the process are likely to come under FTC scrutiny. “There has been a lot of attention in the antitrust field to the abuses of standards setting,” he said, referring to allegations that Rambus Inc. misused the standards process for memory technology. "Serious antitrust concerns that are likely to attract government scrutiny are raised by efforts by firms that dominate a market, to establish a secret standard specification while excluding others from the process, undermining the IEEE open standard setting process in which the dominant firms are ostensibly participating," Morse added in an e-mail.

Marvell’s Gopi denied that anyone was being excluded from the standards discussions.

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