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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.
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.