The future of high-speed wireless LANs hits Vegas

Wireless vendors are using NetWorld+Interop 2001 to unveil the faster (and smaller) future of wireless LANs.

Attendees will get to see what may be the first public demonstration of an 802.11a wireless network that supports speeds up to 54M bit/sec. There will also be matchbook-sized radio cards that will let PocketPC and similar handhelds connect to the current crop of 11M bit/sec 802.11b networks. Finally, some early voice-over-IP handsets are being introduced for 802.11b networks, enabling enterprise users within a building or campus to use the same wireless infrastructure for voice and data.

The 11a prototype network is being demonstrated by Intermec Technologies Corp. of Everett, Wash. The vendor plans to set up the 54M bit/sec wireless network, based on a 5-GHz radio using Atheros Communications Inc.'s two-chip CMOS package. Intermec engineers have been working with Atheros for nearly a year, focused on writing software and firmware that will introduce higher-level features for the planned 11a LAN product, due out by September, according to Greg Smith, vice president of Intermec's wireless products group. These features include giving priority to some types of traffic over the wireless network.

The booth will have a laptop, loaded with a bandwidth-hungry DVD file, and the prototype 5-GHz wireless access point, both connected to a wired LAN. A second laptop, with a prototype interface card, will connect to the access point and display the DVD file.

The Intermec booth will also have several pieces of equipment with 802.11b radios, which operate in the 2.4-GHz band. The idea is to prove that the two networks can operate without interfering with each other.

Intermec is one of many wireless vendors developing the higher-speed 802.11a networks. Cisco Systems Inc. plans to deliver a similar product later this year or early next year.

Symbol Technologies Inc., of Holtsville, N.Y., will show its CompactFlash card for connecting handheld devices to 802.11b wireless networks.

This is important because wireless LAN interface cards have been fairly large for connecting laptops or desktop PCs to a wireless access point. For handheld computers and PDAs to connect to a wireless LAN, a smaller but still power-efficient size is needed.

The new Symbol card is about half the size of a credit card. It will be shown connecting Compaq Computer Corp. iPaq and Hewlett-Packard Co. Jornada PocketPCs to a wireless LAN in the Symbol booth.

"It's an amazing reduction in size, based on a new chipset from Intersil," says Phil Ballai, a senior manager with Symbol's wireless systems division. He says the power requirements for the new card are about the same as for the current, larger PC card for 11b.

"We have several 'modes' of operation," he says. "If the user can live with a bit less performance [by the CompactFlash] card, we can lengthen the battery life." Depending on how often the handheld is used and for what, users can get two hours or more wireless LAN connect time from their laptop batteries.

The new card is due out in late summer at a probable cost of US$200 to $260.

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