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New Linux Broadcom Wi-Fi drivers arrive


One of the most annoying experiences for any desktop Linux user is installing a Linux on a laptop, switching it on, and… discovering that the Wi-Fi chipset doesn’t support Linux. That used to be a commonplace experience, but over the years it’s gotten much better. Unless, of course, you were using a laptop with a Broadcom chipset; then, chances were, you were in for some trouble.

Other Wi-Fi chipset companies like Intel and Atheros have gotten with the program and do a reasonable job of supporting Linux. Atheros even recently went the extra mile and released the Atheros HAL (Hardware Abstraction Layer) for its 802.11abg chipsets under the ISC license. In July, Atheros had open-sourced its 802.11n driver under the same liberal license.

Broadcom, on the other hand, well Broadcom continues to be a pain. In all fairness, Broadcom has made some progress. In February 2007, Broadcom engineers showed up at the Linux Wireless Summit. Then, in the summer of 2007, Broadcom finally gave Linux some driver support for its NetXtreme, NetXtreme II, NetLink and 4401 product lines. In July of this year, Broadcom engineers at the Linux Foundation Summit told me that they’d be giving Linux more support.

Well, I’m still waiting for more direct support from Broadcom. In the meantime, though, some championship reverse-engineering has given us support for the Broadcom B43 chipsets starting in the Linux 2.6.24 kernel.

Now Dell, with some help from Broadcom and Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, has just released a Linux friendly Broadcom Wi-Fi driver for both 32 and 64-bit Linuxes. According to John Hull, Dell’s Manager of Linux OS Engineering, "updated Linux wireless drivers that support cards based on the Broadcom 4311, 4312, 4321, and 4322 chipsets" are now available.

For Dell users, this means that they now have Wi-Fi support for the Dell 1490, 1395, 1397, 1505, and 1510 Wireless cards. Specifically, Hull wrote that, "We’re currently offering the Dell 1397 card with the Studio 15 system with Ubuntu 8.04 and the 1395 card is supported on our new Inspiron Mini 9." But, this isn’t a Dell or Ubuntu only deal. The drivers should work with any Broadcom card using one of the supported chipsets on any modern Linux.

Now, the drivers aren’t, as Hull points out, completely open source. "It is currently only partially open-source, similar to ATI or NVIDIA video drivers, so keep this in mind when deciding if you want to use it." In other words, you’ll still need the proprietary Broadcom firmware. If you’re not a free-software absolutist though, you’ll be able to use these drivers.

Hull went on to say that "This driver is included in the Ubuntu 8.10 release," which is due out at the end of October, "and should be added to Ubuntu 8.04." If you can’t wait, you can download the driver, the Broadcom Linux STA driver today from a Broadcom site. The link in the Dell blog is broken, but this link, as of October 7th, was working. Enjoy!

A version of this story first appeared in ComputerWorld.

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