With its eyes on the future of home entertainment and a relatively uncluttered band of radio spectrum, Cisco's Linksys division has unveiled a line of IEEE 802.11g/a wireless Lan products.
The devices, including a router and clients for both notebooks and desktops, can provide Wi-Fi connectivity over either of two unlicensed radio bands. The 2.4GHz band, used by 802.11g, is also home to some cordless phones, microwaves and other devices that can cause interference. The 802.11a technology uses the 5.0GHz band, where there is less competition from other devices and services.
Linksys, which Cisco acquired last year, launched the devices to promote an aggressive move into what it sees as a burgeoning market for home networking. The company has also introduced a new video camera with a faster wireless Lan connection and unveiled a deal with carriers Verizon, whose broadband telephony customers will now get Cisco VOIP adapters.
Linksys president Charlie Giancarlo said the company saw 802.11a as the emerging Wi-Fi technology for consumers using more demanding home entertainment applications, such as music streaming and movies. It has been used almost exclusively in enterprises, in part because of the relatively high cost of dual radios for networks that support both 802.11a and other Wi-Fi specifications.
Now, some consumer electronics suppliers such as Sony are aiming at 802.11a for their coming wireless entertainment devices. Giancarlo said 802.11a's speed and relatively clean spectrum band made it ideal for entertainment uses. Like 802.11g, it has a theoretical maximum carrying capacity of 54Mbps, compared with 11Mbps for the earlier, widely deployed 802.11b technology.
Linksys's 802.11a/g products will ship next month with prices starting around $89 (£49) for a PC card or PCI adapter. A USB adapter will cost $99 and a router $109. The PC card and PCI adapter include WPA security capability. All the devices will work with older 802.11b equipment.
Under the deal with Verizon, the carrier will provide a Linksys PAP2 free to VoiceWing customers. PAP2 is an analog telephony adapter with one Ethernet port for connection to a broadband router and a pair of phone ports for simultaneously using two phones for VOIP (or a phone and a fax).
Previously VoiceWing customers got the older Cisco ATA 186. Verizon executive director Michelle Swittenberg said the deal with Linksys was not exclusive.
Consumers can only get the PAP2 directly from Verizon after signing up for VoiceWing. Swittenberg said Verizon hoped to begin providing another Linksys adapter that combines the ATA function with a router and selling it through retail channels within the next two years. Most VOIP customers, she said, were early adopters who already had routers at home.
According to Giancarlo, Cisco may bring Wi-Fi and consumer VOIP together soon. Cisco already has a Wi-Fi phone for enterprises.
Price, ruggedness and ease of use were the key issues, Giancarlo said. He expects to see the first Wi-Fi VOIP phones in homes in the next 12 months.
The Linksys video camera, called the Wireless-G Internet Video Camera, uses 802.11g, an upgrade from its earlier 802.11b camera with more bandwidth, as well as an LCD to help consumers set up and use the product. It costs around $199.
Giancarlo, who is also Cisco's chief technology officer, said the Linksys division had achieved great success in Cisco's most recent fiscal year and even taught the parent company some lessons.
Cisco has adopted elements of Linksys's low-cost manufacturing model, taking advantage of Asian partners. Giancarlo said this approach had helped cut costs on 800 Series routers and on stackable switches such as the Catalyst 2950 Series.
But he pointed out that in many cases Cisco would not be able to emulate Linksys's agility in developing and releasing new products. Whereas Linksys can quickly roll out new products for niche markets of early adopters, each new Cisco enterprise product needs to be able to work in a wide variety of network environments all over the world.
One strong region for Linksys is Europe, where sales have tripled in a fragmented market with still limited use of home networks. European homes are less likely to have a second PC or a notebook, both of which tend to drive adoption of wireless Lans. European broadband service providers are starting to push Wi-Fi as a tool for separating the PC from the physical broadband connection.
Stephen Lawson writes for IDG News Service