Don't rubbish wireless

I read with interest the article, Wireless LAN worries mount, (Computerworld Online, February 5, 2002's been a lot of negative press lately on wireless LANs and the 802.11a standard. Most of this information, however, is based more on claims than actual facts. Often, these claims are being made based on interviews with 802.11b company representatives that have not yet even shipped 802.11a. It's a pity to see what is in fact a really good technology being rubbished before it is even tried. Netgear's a major supplier of both the 802.11a and the 802.11b standards and I believe that there is real opportunity for both standards in the Australian market place, particularly in the short term.

Netgear is among the first to ship the latest chip design for its 802.11a products. I'd like to clarify some of the points being made in the media.

It's claimed, for example, that the feature set is incomplete, missing items such as full security capabilities, network management, and roaming. In fact, 802.11a products built for different markets have all the features of 802.11b products built for those markets. For example, Intermec MobileLAN and Proxim's access points already support 802.1x. In addition, unlike almost all 802.11b products, Atheros 802.11a products suffer no performance degradation when encryption is on.

It is claimed the distance at which Wi-Fi 5 will perform at peak 54Mbps, before performance drops, will improve over time so early adopters have products with a shorter peak performance range. In fact, the price of products will drop over time, so early adopters will pay more - this is nothing new and commonly expected. Actual tests of current 802.11a products show they have a consistent two to five times performance advantage over current 802.11b products at all ranges. Consumers making purchases have the option of not buying any wireless LAN (or for that matter, any other computer equipment) until all problems are resolved, or getting 802.11a and getting the advantages of the best wireless LAN product out there.

It's claimed that Symbol and Agere offer dual-band product and software that can be used to upgrade when the technology stabilises. In fact, in offering the dual band product, these companies are implicitly endorsing the notion that 802.11a is the right way to expand an 802.11b network - they just don't have it yet. The 802.11a technology was finalised and became a standard in 1999, making it a stable technology. By the same logic, 11g technology (which won't be finalised and become a standard until late 2002 at the earliest) won't be ready for adoption until 2005.

It's also argued that 802.11a won't be commonplace for a year or two. That it's a technology still in flux, and both Europe and Asia haven't decided on allocating the frequencies for 'a'. With the widespread availability of 802.11a at aggressive prices, consumers ready to buy wireless LAN will have a simple choice - this gives me 54Mbits/sec, and this gives me 11Mbits/sec. How will adoption here change?

Some say that 'g' will be the true successor to 'b' because of its backwards compatibility to both 'a' and 'b', and that representatives of Dell and IBM have been reluctant to endorse 802.11a. No company will endorse technology they don't currently have available. A key thing that 11g arguments gloss over is performance in its so-called 'compatible' mode. The maximum TCP/IP throughput of 'g' at 54Mbps will be 11.8Mbps. This will be a user experience problem when product eventually ships.

Meanwhile, people currently operating 802.11b networks that expand them by adding 802.11a access points get the full performance of a true 54Mbps network - still half the nominal data rate, but a true expansion of a network's capabilities. Furthermore, with eight or more new channels available, one can actually support a reasonable number of users with 802.11a and not worry about interference from neighbouring homes and offices.

It's claimed that handhelds currently support a 16-bit bus for PC Card. Wi-Fi 5 uses a 32-bit bus technology and so will not work with current handhelds. In fact, there's nothing in Wi-Fi 5 that states this. Wi-Fi 5 products aren't currently available with a 16-bit bus, because to date, less than 10,000 Wi-Fi NICs have ever shipped for handheld devices. The focus with handhelds has been Bluetooth and cellular WAN access. Once LAN capability has some real volume, there will be Wi-Fi 5 products that support it.

While admittedly wireless technology is still evolving and security is difficult to implement, wireless technology and product availability has come a long way in 2001 and is set to go even further and gain more acceptance in 2002. Contrary to what some are saying, products like Netgear's 802.11a standard, which offers capabilities never before available in wireless networking, will be in high demand as the increasing number of wireless users, with higher performance needs, grows.

* Ian McLean is managing director, Netgear, Chatswood, NSW

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