Wireless Goes Corporate

SAN FRANCISCO (01/27/2000) - Wireless networking is spreading quickly among small businesses and home users who want to create small networks without the hassle of stringing wires through an attic or ceiling. But products typically provide coverage only for short distances and bandwidths of about 1M bit per second.

This week, 3Com Corp. announced AirConnect, a line of wireless products that leap these hurdles to bring wireless to the corporate setting.

The current AirConnect comes in two parts. First is what 3Com calls an Access Point. This is a wireless receiver/transmitter that looks something like a smoke alarm and typically is installed on the ceiling, says John Drewry, 3Com's director of product management, wireless division. Second come Type 2 PC Cards designed for notebook computers.

The AirConnect Access Point is priced at $1195, and PC Card adapters cost $219 each. A starter pack with one Access Point and three cards will cost $1795.

Each Access point can support as many as 63 wireless devices, handling devices up to 100 meters away. Although all connected devices share the maximum 11M-bps bandwidth, this may not be a major problem, because Access Points "are typically designed for mobile users and will be put into places like conference rooms," Drewry says. "There are physical constraints to how many people you can put into one physical space."

As many as three access points can be installed into the same area, each using a unique frequency.

The 3Com technology supports roaming, enabling a user with a notebook computer to walk through a building, with the networking AirConnect software automatically passing the signal from one access point to another in a manner similar to that used by cellular phones, Drewry said.

The system adapts to varying signal strengths. If the signal between the PC Card adapter and the Access Point weakens, the transfer rate drops, falling back to 5.5M-bps, then to 2M-bps, and finally to 1M-bps, Drewry noted. If the signal improves, the transfer rates jump back up.

Power Provided

Each Access Point connects to the network using standard Category 5 cable--but with a new twist. 3Com developed a technology that exploits an unused pair of wires in the standard cable to provide power to the Access Point.

This technology can save organizations many hundreds of dollars in installation costs, says Drewry. "The cost of a typical drop from a wiring closet to an Access Point is about $200 for the cable [with power in the cable], and about $600 just to run power over the same distance," he says.

This spring, 3Com will ship PCI cards with antennas that let desktop computers connect to a wireless AirConnect network. The company also plans a second product line targeted for the small office, with a third line aimed at consumers, says Drewry.

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