Wireless LAN slow in getting from b to a

Wireless LAN could well be stuck at 802.11b for some time yet, according to Intel.

Wireless LAN could well be stuck at 802.11b for some time yet, according to Intel.

The existing standard is popular - figures from IDC show that around 250,000 802.11b units were shipped during 2001.

But getting to the next level of wireless networking is likely to involve a lot of blood, sweat and tears and an awful lot of committee work.

There are limitations to 802.11b. Currently, 'b' offers 11Mbps, but that is split between the number of users per access point. Development is continuing on 802.11g, which uses the same frequency -2.5Ghz - but offers 54Mbps.

Meanwhile, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved 802.11a in the US. The 'a' standard uses a different frequency - 5Ghz - and also offers 54Mbps. In addition, changing the frequency takes 802.11 out of the same part of the spectrum as Bluetooth.

The problem is that while the US market is ready to press ahead with 802.11a this year - and various companies have working production parts for the new standard - getting 'a' approved in Europe is another kettle of fish.

The impetus for developing 802.11g, which might well have had a better chance of being approved quickly by regulators in Europe, has been stalled by lack of enthusiasm and will not get to market before 802.11a.

The problem with 'a' is that organisations such as the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) have approved a standard which has all but fallen by the wayside.

HiperLAN was and is a good way of offering wireless networking. The technology is good but the level of popularity is not.

Apple started the rush towards 802.11 with notebooks and PCs that could be upgraded for wireless networking cheaply and effectively. Using Lucent's 802.11 technology, the firm effectively kick-started the consumer market for wireless.

Good technology hardly ever succeeds against popularity in the IT market, and HiperLAN just is not there.

Ironically, the best chance vendors have of getting 802.11a pushed through the EU's bureaucracy rests with organisations that intend to simply reclassify 802.11 as a form of HiperLAN technology, which is already approved by the EU.
There is another problem - one which is perhaps a little trickier for 802.11a proponents to come up against.

Various organisations in Europe are set against 'a' because it trespasses on parts of the spectrum they already use. The military and broadband satellite providers in particular are unhappy with the idea of having to compete for spectrum.

Test Group H of the 802.11 working group is bashing its way towards a set of standards for 'a' in Europe and will address power usage and security issues.

According to Intel, we will have to wait until 2003 before 802.11a makes it to Europe.

In the meantime, we're stuck with 802.11b. The good news, according to IDC, is that shipments will continue to climb regardless. Frustrating, but still lucrative.

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