January 5, 2005 10:31 AM PST

Start-up pictures video-ready wireless networks

A new start-up says it has developed antenna technology that can steer signals around obstacles, improving reliability in wireless home networks.

Video54 Technologies, based in Mountain View, Calif., will be showcasing its BeamFlex technology at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week. On Wednesday, the company announced that Netgear, a maker of home networking gear, will be the first company to integrate the BeamFlex antenna into a new line of wireless-access products. Netgear is branding the products under the name RangeMax.

Video54's technology uses software to adjust signal paths of wireless devices to steer them around obstacles. The product is composed of antenna arrays that generate hundreds of unique beam patterns. The software continuously learns the environment and reconfigures the antenna to adapt to changing radio frequency, network and user conditions.

By increasing a wireless network's range, the company says its technology also improves reliability. Today's wireless networks offer spotty connectivity at best, which is bad for services like voice and video, which require a consistent signal. For most data applications, a temporary delay in transmission is bearable and sometimes unnoticeable. But the slightest disturbance--a cat running through the living room--could cause enough interference to make a video unwatchable.

Radio technology, from wireless LANs to cell phones, suffers constant ups and downs in performance, said Craig Mathias, a principal at Farpoint Group, a consultancy specializing in wireless and mobile technologies. "Sometimes it works great, and other times it doesn't. If you can apply a little intelligence to improve the signal quality and reliability of the service, then that's a big deal."

Video54 isn't the only company trying to solve the wireless reliability problem. Others are taking a different approach. Chipmaker Airgo has designed new silicon that uses MIMO--multiple-in, multiple-out--technology, which also improves reliability and promises to increase performance.

The technology, which has not yet been standardized, is gaining momentum. On Monday, Linksys announced that it is incorporating the technology in its new wireless routers and adapter cards. Linksys will demonstrate the new products at CES this week. Belkin, which also makes Wi-Fi gear, announced in August that it would use the Airgo MIMO technology in some of its products.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers is currently working on a new standard called 802.11n that could include Airgo's technology.

Unlike MIMO technology, Video54's product is completely standards-based, and it is compatible with existing Wi-Fi chipsets. BeamFlex provides much of the benefit of the future 802.11n standard without the cost or risk associated with nonstandard silicon, said Selina Lo, the company's CEO. While the two technologies achieve similar results, Lo also said they could complement one another.

"MIMO works by providing multiple paths for the traffic," she said. "But it's done at the chip level. You still need antennae to transmit it through the network. So theoretically, our technology could enhance MIMO."

 

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