High-speed wireless LANs are coming

About a year from now, the first high-speed wireless LAN products will hit the market, promising to deliver a data rate of up to 54Mbps. That speed should give enterprise net managers plenty of time to assess their net requirements, scope out product plans and address with vendors a range of critical issues such as technical support and software stability.

Net executives face a range of problems - and opportunities - with the faster radio technology. These include installing many more wireless access points than today's wireless LANs need, higher power consumption for laptop interface cards, security, and remote administration and network management.

Enterprise users installing today's IEEE 802.11b wireless LANs, in the 2.4GHz band at 11Mbps, rattle off a litany of nagging problems that could carry over into the faster wireless products. Technical support staff are often hard to reach. Because of small differences in the way vendors implement the standards, interface cards from one vendor might not work with the access point from another. Software drivers are flaky or have to be laboriously updated.

That's what one user discovered when evaluating wireless LANs.

"I'd gone in [to our wireless LAN evaluation] thinking that this was an enterprise-ready technology," says Chris Maers, a network administrator with CoManage Corp., a Wexford, Pa., vendor of service management software carriers and ISPs. "But we'd make a call to the support line, and you'd have to call three or four times, or you'd get forwarded to three or four different departments to find the right guy."

Maers wouldn't be specific but he says the products he evaluated were from the major manufacturers in the wireless arena.

Like CoManage, other companies are turning to wireless LANs, even though wireless throughput still lags far behind faster Ethernet-switched LANs. "There are three reasons to deploy wireless," says Craig Mathias, a principal with technology advisory firm FarPoint Group. "You can't install wire, for whatever reason. Wireless is cheaper over a given time. Or you need mobility."

In some cases, bandwidth-hungry applications such as video might be the main attraction for high-speed wireless, but most analysts seem to think that if an enterprise customers choose wireless, they want the fastest wireless LAN possible. "Speed is what is really driving this market," says Gemma Paulo, wireless industry analyst with Cahners In-Stat. "People just want fast speed overall."

Many LAN equipment vendors are scrambling to satisfy that need.

There are about 15 wireless LAN vendors, including 3Com, Agere (part of Lucent), Cisco, Enterasys (a Cabletron company) and Nokia. Most of them have declared or hinted they'll introduce high-speed wireless LANs based on the 802.11a standard in 2001. These products will work in the 5GHz band, use a modulation technique called orthogonal frequency division multiplexing and run at several data rates, up to 54Mbps. The first 802.11a products could ship in early 2002, with more expected before mid-2002.

There is some interest in yet another IEEE standard, 802.11g, which extends the 2.4GHz, 802.11b technology to 22Mbps. Some products at this speed may appear during the latter half of 2002.

Finally, there is an entirely different standard, HiperLAN/2, which has been drafted by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute. Like 802.11a, it promises up to 54Mbps data rates in the 5GHz band. Some consider HiperLAN/2 to be technically superior to the IEEE standard. But right now, it's mainly a European standard, with products yet to appear.

The LAN vendors are moving aggressively. Cisco went so far as to buy one of the key 802.11a chip makers, Radiata. "We've made a very substantial commitment to future wireless technology," says Ron Seide, product line manager with Cisco's wireless networking group. "We anticipate being the vendor with the first product to market in the 5GHz space."

3Com, among others, plans to release products during the first half of 2002, assuming that the 5GHz chipsets arrive on schedule, says John Drewry, a senior director with 3Com's wireless connectivity division. Drewry looks to the chip makers to achieve technical breakthroughs that will pack more functions on fewer chips, thereby making the chipsets smaller, less expensive and more power-efficient.

In fact, the higher power needs may make the 5GHz products completely unsuitable for laptop users. Today's batteries may not supply enough juice to run a 5GHz radio for long.

Unit prices for the faster LANs will be higher than the current 2.4GHz LANs, but should start to drop fairly quickly, Mathias says. Today's 802.11b interface cards are about US$150 and should hit US$75 by year-end. Their 802.11a equivalents will start at about US$200 next year, Mathias predicts, and then drop rapidly to about US$150. Today's access points are about US$900, dropping to about US$600 in the future. The 802.11a access points will initially sell for about US$1,000, dropping quickly to US$650 to US$750 in the subsequent 12 months, he predicts.

This more-costly radio technology will create a new set of issues for enterprise net executives.

For one thing, you'll have to configure your net differently, and with many more access points. That's because the range of a 5.4GHz radio is less than that of a 2.4GHz radio. A rough rule used by vendors as a starting point is that a current 802.11b access point has a range of about 250 to 300 feet in a typical open office layout. In the same setting, and at the maximum 54Mbps data rate, an 11a access point will have a range of about 90 feet. The shorter wavelength of 5.4GHz means that transmissions in this band have more trouble traveling through walls, floors, furniture and other obstructions, says Cisco's Ron Seide.

Early tests at 3Com have established a rough rule of thumb. "If you roll out a cell-based deployment of 5GHz access points, you'll need four times as many to cover the same space [as a 2.4GHz LAN]," Drewry says.

That brings up another issue: The total cost of ownership over time for 5GHz nets also will be higher, even considering that hardware prices decrease over time, says Jason Smolek, a wireless analyst with market research firm IDC.

The wireless LAN vendors can take steps to cut cost of ownership even more, he says. "Vendors have to bring this down by educating their [distribution] channel and creating effective [customer] service organizations," Smolek says. Channel investment and service quality will become criteria for net managers to evaluate.

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