While plans for third-generation always-on wireless broadband access seem to be in the doldrums, localised services based on the 802.11 group of wireless Lan standards are gaining credibility and popularity.
Earlier this month Wi-fi received a boost with ratification of 802.11a, the standard that enhances the performance of wireless Lans, providing 54mbps. The certification comes a year after the first 802.11a product began to be shipped. As a result of the ratification, a number of products from Atheros, Cisco, Intel, Intermec, Intersil and Proxim have been tested for interoperability and products can now display the "Wi-fi certified" logo on packaging.
One key concern with this new technology is that it is incompatible with the existing 802.11b specification. The 5GHz radio frequency it uses is also not available worldwide - as some countries put restrictions on its use (military use only, for instance).
There are also concerns that due to the way the technology is implemented for 802.11a, users will find that their new 54mbps WLans work over shorter distances compared to existing 802.11b products.
Analysts said users could confidently back the emerging standard despite concerns over the short range of the transmission method and the forthcoming arrival of the 802.11g standard, which offers the same bandwidth and backwards compatibility with the now well-established 802.11b.
The 802.11a standard is the 54mbps successor to the 11mbps 802.11b. While the former runs in the unlicenced 2.4GHz frequency band, the latter runs in the 5GHz band. This allows it to sidestep interference with mobile phones, Bluetooth and other devices in the unlicenced band, but its range is shorter.
A future standard, 802.11g is expected in June. This will provide 54mbps but uses the same 2.4GHz radio frequency as 802.11b, so products should work internationally.
Ian Stevenson, an analyst with Ovum, said, "The extra bandwidth will be useful for users for whom 802.11b is not sufficiently scalable. The big advantage of 11g is that it will be backward compatible. The concern with 11a is range - it is said it will not go through buildings, so even in a home environment more than one access point could be needed."
Despite the apparent attractions of waiting for 11g, analyst firm Gartner recommends going for 11a products should they fit a business need.
Ian Keene, an analyst with Gartner, said, "We recommend 11a. There are no problems with interference in the 5GHz frequency range. Assuming regulations are sorted out products should be available by 2004. In the meantime go for dual mode [11b and 11a] access points so that you are ready for products when they ship."