Look before you leap into 802.11a

If you are looking to boost the speed of your wireless LAN infrastructure, the arrival of 802.11a wireless Ethernet products that use the 5-GHz frequency range should be a good thing. The products provide about five times the speed of current 802.11b (or Wi-Fi) products, and faster speeds make happier end users, right?

Unfortunately, there are a few bumps in the road, which makes the issue of whether to adopt 802.11a a tricky one.

First off, most of the top 802.11b vendors are not yet producing 802.11a products. Vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc., Agere Systems Inc. (Orinoco), Symbol Technologies Inc. and Enterasys Networks Inc. are waiting a few months before launching so they can add better security and more functionality, and be able to ensure product interoperability.

While many vendors will eventually offer 802.11a products, there's debate about which high-speed wireless LAN protocol will dominate in corporate networks.

The 802.11a products coming out now support speeds up to 54M bit/sec, but the recently approved 802.11g standard promises the same speed and the added bonus of backward compatibility with current 802.11b (and even older 802.11) gear. The 802.11a protocol uses frequencies in the 5-GHz range, while 802.11g uses frequencies in the 2.4-GHz range, the same as 802.11b.

For companies that have spent a lot of money on wireless LANs, waiting another nine to 12 months for 802.11g products might make more sense than ripping up existing infrastructure to install 802.11a gear. Coming in three to four months will be dual A/B access points that let you try out 802.11a while still supporting the 802.11b infrastructure.

But if you want to jump into 802.11a (for example, you don't have an 802.11b network), be wary of a few things. First, product interoperability hasn't been fully tested. The Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Association (WECA) did a great job on certifying 802.11b products with its Wi-Fi program. The new logo program, known as Wi-Fi5, is in the works but won't begin until more chipset vendors launch products.

Second, make sure you understand the market that the vendor is targeting. Currently, only Proxim (which is merging with Western Digital) has an enterprise-level 802.11a product, (Harmony line).

So before you rush to buy the new 802.11a products, make sure you are doing it for the right reasons for your company, as opposed to doing it just because it's the newest and coolest thing.

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