Atheros plans Wi-Fi/powerline framework

Combining wireless technologies like Wi-Fi with powerline systems has been discussed for years, but a real requirement is emerging in growth areas like the smart grid, home monitoring and full-house digital media networks. Having acquired powerline chip specialist Intellon last year for $244 million in stock and cash, Wi-Fi bigwig Atheros is looking to integrate its technologies more closely and, in the process, try to create a de facto standard.

On acquiring Intellon, Atheros CEO Craig Barratt said the Wi-Fi/powerline combination, plus Ethernet, could take the role of "the backbone of the home network". However, powerline has its own standards issues with six different candidates, while other wireless platforms like ZigBee and Bluetooth are also looking to push into the smart home.

Atheros hopes its initiative will gather sufficient industry weight to help sort out the standards mess, and is focusing on a mesh networking approach.

Narrow focus

A mesh embracing Wi-Fi and powerline and also the MoCA (Multimedia over Coax) home networking platform would significantly enhance the creation of standardized in-home systems, says Atheros' CTO Bill McFarland. "We are interested in standardization, but we will do it in a focused way. We are only talking about home networking."
Intellon has mainly sold its chips into the European IPTV market and also made some inroads in Ethernet over coax for China and elsewhere.

In the past, various attempts to create mesh standards have floundered because their remit was too broad, covering vastly different mesh applications from metro area networks to military to home.

As well as MoCA, Atheros has been in talks with the HPPA (HomePlug Powerline Alliance). Assuming the various parties can reach consensus, they will either set up their own group and call for industry support, or seek to work through the IEEE's 802.11 group, which controls the Wi-Fi standards.

Atheros is currently sampling the latest Intellon chipset, which uses the HomePlug and IEEE 1901 standards. Other chipmakers preparing products that support the same specifications include Renesas and STMicro.

In April the HPPA said it would provide the baseline technology for the IEEE P1901 standard for powerline, bringing HomePlug closely into the marketable family of IEEE standards alongside Ethernet, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The HPPA will serve as the certification group for 1901 products, with a similar role to that of the Wi-Fi Alliance, and the next priority is to work on integrating HomePlug with Wi-Fi.

"The big evolution is we now have an IEEE standard coupled with price reductions that will let us move from installations based on adapters to being embedded," says McFarland. "Powerline has never been embedded into another device, but now TVs and Blu-Ray players might have it built right in. We are across the chasm in embedded Wi-Fi and we are about to cross it for powerline."

Over time, the aim would be to create integrated silicon for Wi-Fi and powerline.

The powerline market is expected to grow at more than 30% CAGR in the next few years, which is faster than the WLAN segment, and margins are better too at 50%.

Other Wi-Fi chipmakers may now be looking for a coax and/or powerline partner or acquisition. Powerline is expected to be stronger than MoCA outside North America.

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