Prices are coming down on wireless LAN gear that uses advanced multi-antenna technology, bringing its higher speed and greater range within reach of more power-hungry consumers - as long as they're comfortable with pre-standard products.

Everyone does it - but differently
Most of the biggest Wi-Fi vendors now offer consumer access points and clients with systems that take advantage of multiple antennas on clients and routers, boosting data speed above the standard 54 Mbit/s theoretical maximum for standard Wi-Fi and in some cases extending the range of coverage.

The technologies - actually several different systems that all claim the name MIMO (multiple in-multiple out) - have multiple built-in antennas along with features to take advantage of them. But so far they have been expensive, with routers priced as high as $200 in the US (though they are showing up for £75 at online stores in the UK), according to industry analysts. The products also won't be backed by a standard until probably 2007, though they work with (and improve the performance of) existing Wi-Fi gear.

Airgo Networks, which has offered these types of chipsets since last year and counts Belkin, Buffalo Technology and Cisco-Linksys as customers, has introduced three chipsets intended for lower priced performance-boosted wireless LAN equipment. The California-based company unveiled a lower cost version of its current True MIMO chipset as well as two new chipsets, called True G and True AG, that Airgo said offer some of True MIMO's performance boost in wireless routers with list prices under $100 in the US.

Faster WLANs that go through walls
Wireless LAN gear based on the True MIMO chipset typically delivers more than twice the real throughput of conventional 802.11g gear and gets through walls better, removing any "dead spots" around most homes, said Greg Raleigh, president and chief executive officer of Airgo. Through increased chip integration, Airgo has reduced the price of True MIMO, so access points using it should have US list prices between US$129 and $149, down from between $149 and $199 today, he said. Lower prices on True MIMO products should appear within the next two months, he said.

But access point vendors will be able to go below $100 with boxes that use True G, a less powerful system that still gives a significant throughput boost and eliminates dead spots, Raleigh said. The True G routers should carry US list prices between $69 and $99, and client PC Cards between $59 and $89, he said. The products should hit the market this month, he said. Gear made with True AG, which will work with both the IEEE 802.11a and 802.11g standards in different radio bands, should cost only slightly more than True G products, according to Airgo.

Fewer antennas make cheaper MIMO
Airgo's products divide a payload of data into multiple data streams, sent from multiple antennas, and then use digital signal processing at the destination to put the payload back together, Raleigh said. The True MIMO chipset uses three antennas and the True G and True AG use just two. Users will see benefits even if they buy just one piece with the new technology, such as a PC Card that they use with a standard access point, he said.

Prices for advanced Wi-Fi chipsets such as Airgo's are on the way down, according to IDC analyst Celeste Crystal. From an average bill of materials on a client of about $18 at the beginning of this year (compared with less than $9 for a conventional chipset), they should fall to $16.34 by the end of 2005 and $13.88 a year later, she said.

New, less expensive chips could broaden the appeal of multiple-antenna products by lowering prices, but most average consumers won't embrace the technology until after a standards fight being waged in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), said Peter Jarich of Current Analysis.

"I think it's going to be hard to reach the price points to really make it mainstream before there's a standard," Jarich said. And besides the economies of scale and competition that will come with a final standard, the new technology will need an official Wi-Fi stamp of approval before some users will buy it, he added. Until then, the Airgo-based gear won't truly become a mass technology.

Enterprises don't want a non-standard
That's even more true in enterprises, said IDC's Crystal. "The enterprise customers are not buying into this for one second, because they don't want to invest in a technology that's soon going to change," Crystal said.

Standards fight - Airgo versus Intel
The fight in the IEEE is over 802.11n, intended as the next step in wireless LAN standards after IEEE 802.11a and 802.11g, which deliver a theoretical maximum of 54 Mbit/s. The new standard is intended to boost the actual throughput users experience to more than 100 Mbit/s. However, none of the proposals for the standard have garnered the required 75 percent vote in the 802.11n working group. The two main factions are working on compromises between their approaches, said Airgo's Raleigh.

One faction, World-Wide Spectrum Efficiency (WWISE), is represented by Airgo as well as Broadcom and Motorola. Ironically, Cisco Systems, parent of Airgo customer Linksys, backs the competing TGn Sync proposal. Chip makers Atheros and Intel are among other TGn Sync backers.

The pre-N confusion
Several vendors already use the term "pre-N" for multiple-antenna products despite the early stage of the standard's development, but Jarich doesn't think that is creating confusion that is turning off consumers.

"It's setting the stage for confusion, but I think right now most consumers don't even really know enough to be confused," Jarich said.