CES - Netgear gets aggressive on 11n wireless pricing

The company will this week unveil a two-radio 5GHz 802.11n router with a new internal antenna system for less than half the price of rival products

Netgear this week will unveil a two-radio 5GHz 802.11n router with a new internal antenna system and a price tag under US$130, less than half the price of some rival products for the SOHO and residential wireless LAN market.

The router is one of several new Netgear products aimed at what WLAN vendors are betting will be a strong buying surge for 11n equipment. The draft IEEE standard is being implemented in products that deliver 150Mbps to more than 400Mbps, compared with 54Mbps for today's 11g and 11a equipment. Fueling demand in residential markets is the growing appetite for sharing and streaming bandwidth-hungry music, photo and video files.

Besides the dual-band router, Netgear this week also released an 11n router with five Gigabit Ethernet ports; bridges that connect Ethernet client devices over an 11n radio link; and an 11n USB adapter for desktop and notebook PCs.

These are the first Netgear products to run 11n in the 5GHz band. Previous products, and most from rivals, have offered Draft 2 (or even Draft 1) 11n support only in the crowded, noisy 2.4GHz spectrum.

The aggressive low price for the RangeMax Dual Band Wireless-N Router is due in part to the fact that only one of the radios is 11n. Some rival products have two 11n chips, which by default can work with 11g or 11b clients. But Netgear officials ask: Why slow down an expensive 11n radio when these so-called legacy users can be served as they already are -- by existing 11g silicon? In the RangeMax Dual Band router, one radio is a conventional 11g chip for legacy clients in the 2.4GHz band. The router's 11n radio can be set to either frequency band, but Netgear executives expect most users to select the higher frequency, which has fewer devices, less traffic and more channels.

For the first time, Netgear using a new technology to add additional antennas directly on the printed circuit board. These antennas, intended to improve signal quality and reliability, are over and above the multiple antennas with the 11n silicon. A key element in 11n is the use of multiple antennas to subdivide a data stream into typically two or three substreams, each sent or received by a separate antenna. Called multiple input multiple output (MIMO), the technique make is possible to reach data rates of 150M to 450Mbps depending in part on the number of antennas.

The new Netgear 11n router in effect layers another grouping of antennas over these, according to Netgear officials. The company first introduced this idea three years ago in new RangeMax products. But the new 11n router uses a technology called "metamaterial" which despite the name is not a material. Instead, it's a new way to design antennas: layering a 3-D structure directly onto the printed circuit board, according to Som Choudhury, product line manager, with Netgear's advanced wireless group. The antennas can be placed very close to each other without interference, he says.

The eight additional antennas can be dedicated to separate bands, and to separate sectors of coverage. Software selects the optimal signals and can change that selection if the radio frequency environment changes. Netgear says it's the first WLAN vendor to go beyond the antenna technology in the various 11n chipsets, to improve signal quality and reliability.

The router has four 10/100 Ethernet ports for its integrated LAN switch. For security, it supports the Wi-Fi Protected Set-up (WPS), unveiled last year at CES: an industry specification that automates and simplifies the work of creating a secure WLAN. It's available now at a retail price of US$130.

The RangeMax Wireless-N Gigabit Router has one Gigabit Ethernet WAN port and four GigE LAN ports. It's single-band 11n chip also has a metamaterial array of eight antennas. It's priced at US$160.

Also new is an 11n bridge called Netgear 5GHz Wireless-N HD Access Point/Bridge. On it's own, it can be cabled to an existing broadband router or gateway, acting as a WLAN access point for 11n clients access that WAN connection. Or, you can cable a gaming console or other client to it and the device acts as a bridge to one of the new Netgear 11n routers. It's priced at US$130.

Netgear has paired two of these devices into a networking kit, the HD/Gaming 5GHz Wireless-N Networking Kit, targeted at high-definition video and gaming applications. One of the devices plugs into the router or gateway, the second into any other device with a Ethernet port, such as Xbox or Wii game consoles, or digital and IPTV set-top boxes. The radios automatically find each and forge a secure 5GHz radio link. As with the other 11n products it support automatic quality of service to prioritize the wireless traffic and optimize streaming media applications. The networking kit also supports peer-to-peer connections for gaming, and multicast point-to-multipoint video streaming. The kit is priced at US$230. Additional bridges can be bought for other devices and they, too, automatically connect with the main access/point bridge.

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John Cox

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