Are cabled networks facing a wireless rival?

Wireless local area networks (WLANs) have been around for much longer than many people realize. Indeed, the core technology they use-the spread-spectrum technique-was actually developed during World War II to provide secure communications

May 1st, 2000
Th Rg Cymk

New wireless-transmission standards may pave the way for a wireless revolution.

David Boothroyd

Wireless local area networks (WLANs) have been around for much longer than many people realize. Indeed, the core technology they use-the spread-spectrum technique-was actually developed during World War II to provide secure communications. In the early days of WLANs, a small number of companies, mostly in the United States, produced systems operating typically at a frequency of 900 MHz. However, they were all proprietary and incompatible with each other.

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The RG-1000 residential gateway product, which is Wi-Fi-compliant, is intended to provide high-speed Internet access in homes and small offices.

"That is certainly one of the reasons why WLANs in the past were confined very much to niche markets," says Paul Sherry, European sales director for the new technology division of Nortel Networks. Previously, Sherry was manager of the European operation of Netwave, a manufacturer of WLAN systems, which was bought by Nortel. "WLANs were also expensive, so they were only used for applications that absolutely demanded the sort of mobility and online connectivity that WLANs can provide."

There were other reasons for going down the WLAN route. One was the sheer difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of installing a cabled network in a particular site-say, for example, in an old listed building where the upheaval required to install cabling could turn out to be against the law. Also, WLANs have been used for temporary networking in situations like exhibitions and conferences.

Vertical markets that have used WLANs quite widely include medical and healthcare, retailing, education, warehousing, and in some areas of manufacturing, especially in hostile environments like production lines.

Standardization is key

However, it was clear that lack of standardization in the WLAN market was discouraging more widespread use. This problem was rectified, at least to an extent, in 1997 when the IEEE 802.11 standard was finally ratified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE-New York City).

"This was very significant be-cause it was the first time that some degree of vendor interoperability could begin to emerge," Sherry says. "The University of New Hampshire helped here, by confirming that systems from different vendors, such as Nortel, Lucent, Breezecom, and AT&T, actually did work together." The U.S. university maintains an interoperability lab, at which it conducts tests on cable-based and wireless networking equipment.

Since the IEEE standard was set, there has been growth in awareness of WLAN technology and the potential it offers. But Sherry feels that it is still perceived as reasonably expensive, with fairly slow data rates.

"I would say that, until today, there has not been a major move from WLANs' niche, vertical-market position to a much broader, horizontal acceptance of the technology in large corporations."

Speed and cost issues

Two key factors affect the greater adoption of WLANs: speed and cost. The first has to go up, the second has to come down. Both are happening. Recently, prices of WLAN systems have been cut by as much as 40%. For example, in February, Lucent Technologies slashed the price of its wireless network cards from $295 to $179. About 18 months ago, the price was $495.

Even so, it is probably fair to say that the overall perception in the marketplace is that consumers are still required to pay a significant price premium for going wireless. This premium may be justifiable, but that depends on the application.

Proponents of WLANs argue that a frequently overlooked factor affecting pricing is that a wireless system represents a reusable solution, compared with a cabled network. For example, it is relatively easy not only to install a WLAN, but also to remove it and place it elsewhere. So for any customer with this need to relocate, the greater initial cost of a WLAN can be seen as a longer-term investment, which can affect its economic justification vis-à-vis a cabled alternative.

Under the initial IEEE 802.11 standard, WLANs could offer 2-Mbit/sec speed or 1-Mbit/sec in harsh environments. With the expansion of IEEE 802.11, standards-based wireless systems can now offer 11-Mbit/sec speeds. Products with this throughput capability have been shipping since late last year.

Future standards and applications

There is little doubt that in the future, WLAN technology will provide still higher data rates. However, the means by which the technology achieves higher data rates is far from being decided. Although 802.11 is the most widely adopted WLAN standard today, the future development of wireless is far from being clearly mapped out. There are several potential standards for varying kinds of future wireless applications, including HiperLAN2, put forward by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI); HomeRF; Bluetooth; the IEEE's 802.15; and efforts by IrDA, the Infrared Data Association. Additionally, a series of bodies aimed at supporting such standards, like the Wireless LAN Alliance and the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, actively promotes WLANs and in some cases, specific standards.

WLAN proponents view today's increase in speed as particularly important, not simply because it will mean data is transported more quickly, and hence extend the range of applications for which WLANs are suitable, but also because it will help correct the prejudice held by some that "wireless is not Ethernet."

"It has definitely been the case that since WLANs could not offer the 10 Mbits/sec of standard Ethernet, they suffered as a result," says Bryan Hall of Lucent. Hall is the business development manager for Lucent's Orinoco range of wireless access products.

In fact, the performance of the 2-Mbit/sec products was in many cases perfectly acceptable and often not noticeably different to using an ordinary cabled Ethernet network. But there is no doubt that the increased capacity will give a boost to WLANs. Hall says Lucent has already seen a sharp rise in demand. In addition, the new version of the 802.11 standard is in one sense actually more of a standard than its predecessor, because it specifies only one wireless technique to be used-direct-sequence spread spectrum (DSSS)-as opposed to the first version, which also included frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS). Even though they both complied with the standard, DSSS and FHSS systems were incompatible with each other.

Interoperability has thus been something of a weak point for WLANs. To ensure this time it really means what it says, WLAN players, including 3Com, Aironet, Intersil, Lucent, Nokia, and Symbol Technologies, last year formed a group called the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA). The group's aim is to give customers cast-iron guarantees that systems from different vendors will work together perfectly. A logo certifying interoperability, "Wi-Fi" (which stands for wireless fidelity), will be given by WECA to equipment that has passed the tests.

Impact on cabling-system deployment

In terms of whether wireless networking poses any kind of immediate threat to the conventional cable-based network industry, there is no question that the overwhelming view is no. Instead, the two technologies are seen as being complementary rather than competitive, partly because there is still a significant difference between them in terms of performance and cost.

Only if wireless techniques reach the point at which there was very little difference between the two in terms of data-carrying capacity and cost, would wireless start to take market share away from traditional cabling. Clearly, if it were possible to install a wireless network that offered comparable performance at virtually the same price as a wired network, it would be preferred by many. That's because one of the most expensive, time-consuming, and potentially problematic aspects of conventional networks is the installation and subsequent management-not to mention upgrading-of the cables.

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Large enterprises and those working in a campus environment can use the WavePOINT II access point from Lucent.

No one expects to see wireless systems competing directly with cabling infrastructures for quite some time. But what is finally starting to happen, according to Sherry, is a gradual broadening of the WLAN base, away from its niche status to its adoption by the general corporate marketplace.

"People are increasingly deploying WLANs for use in areas like meeting rooms, for applications such as 'hot-desking,' for setting up new offices and temporary sites very quickly, and generally in many situations where there is a transient, mobile workforce."

The trend toward greater mobility is certain to grow. Companies are now starting to plan office capacity on the basis of several employees using the same seat, rather than each employee with his or her own seat, because these employees are away from their office far more than they are in it. Setups like this are likely to make wireless solutions more attractive.

"There is no question that the biggest driver for implementing a wireless solution is the need for greater mobility and flexibility in working," says Lucent's Hall. "Today, most mobile workforces are using notebook PCs, so they have mobility in their basic tool, but they also need it in terms of connectivity, and that is what wireless provides."

Current and future technical advantages

Another factor that will help wireless become more widespread is the fact that, in the sense of being of a high-volume, commercial technology, wireless is much younger than its wired counterpart. The implications of that fact are that the level of integration currently available in the electronic components used to build wireless networking systems is significantly less than it is for wired networks.

For example, a standard Ethernet network interface card (NIC) today costs around $25, whereas three to four years ago, it was closer to $250. The price was very high because NICs were complex devices with a large component count. By shrinking most of these components onto a few application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) produced in high volume, the cost has been dramatically reduced. This type of procedure has yet to happen to the same extent with wireless LAN cards. Today, they are typically still complex, less highly integrated units, as Sherry says.

"Nortel, for example, features a 4-layer PCB [printed circuit board] with almost 300 surface-mount components, and this makes it inevitably more expensive to design and manufacture than a few ASICs. Much the same applies to all other vendors. Also, there are some specific facets of RF [radio-frequency] engineering that are inherently complex. But as volume grows and chipsets are developed that feature far greater integration, costs will fall."

Another factor that will help wireless is that the protocols it uses are inherently more efficient than those used for standard Ethernet. As the use of an Ethernet network grows, and more is demanded of it, performance can degrade as the number of data collisions increases. A WLAN uses a different protocol, based on collision avoidance, which means it works more like a switched network. The result is that a specification of 11 Mbits/sec in a wireless system can provide better performance than standard Ethernet, even though "on paper" it is only 1 Mbit/sec faster.

Also, there are potential new markets still in their infancy, where the attraction of wireless solutions will be so great that arguably they will compete with cable. One is LANs for the home and small business, where putting in a dedicated structured cabling system is not an attractive proposition. Lucent, for instance, has just introduced a new family of wireless access systems under the brand name Orinoco, which includes a residential gateway product. One aim is to enable notebook PC users to have wireless access as easily at home as they do in the office.

Even so, most people foresee the wireless and wired worlds growing together. But as Sherry says, there is at the moment a distinct gap between the two that should not really exist.

"I hesitate to use the word, but there is almost a 'Luddite' aspect to the cabling and networking industry. There is absolutely no reason why companies in the cabling business now should not also be in the wireless business. But typically, there is a clear divide between the two, apart from some of the largest vendors."

As wireless technology increasingly enters the mainstream and becomes a common feature of offices, innovative ways of using it will be developed. For example, once a building is RF/wireless-equipped, many different systems can use it-printers, telephones, television projectors, and the entire security system of the building.

Standards are emerging that will make this happen, including Bluetooth. This standard features a relatively low data rate of 1 Mbit/sec and very restricted range, so it is in no way intended as a rival standard to IEEE 802.11 for WLAN technology. But by allowing portable devices like a personal digital assistant (PDA) to immediately gain access to a building's network, the Bluetooth standard can and probably will create quite new ways of working.

David Boothroyd is technical editor of Cabling Installation & Maintenance Europe, another PennWell publication.

Lucent launches Orinoco

Arlyn S. Powell, Jr.

The Lucent Technologies WaveLAN Div. (Nieuwegein, the Netherlands) has launched a high-speed wireless data- networking product line that will be seamlessly operable at home, at work, and in public places.

"We've named the product line Orinoco after the South American river," says director of product and business management Angela Champness, "because we want to convey the idea of flow from one environment to another." Orinoco is based on Lucent's WaveLAN technology and is compliant with the IEEE 802.11b 11-Mbit/sec wireless data standard.

"The underlying hardware is WaveLAN," Champness adds. "It is the software that's different." The user's computer is equipped with a single PC card that enables the device to be used in any of three different environments, each of which has called for separate hardware and software in the past.

  • Orinoco PC card operates at 11 Mbits/sec and has an operating range of 1,200 ft. It is a radio device operating in the 2.4-GHz band using direct-sequence technology. The IEEE 802.11b and Wi-Fi-compliant card can be integrated into notebook and handheld computers and offers PCI, ISA, and EC options.
  • The RG-1000 is a home and small-business networking gateway supporting Orinoco PC card-enabled devices. It links one or more computers with printers, scanners, and other peripherals and can provide multiple, simultaneous Internet access via V.90 or any other modem protocol: cable-modem, digital subscriber line, Integrated Services Digital Network. The data interface is a 10Base-T Ethernet port.
  • For the enterprise, WavePOINT-II access points are provided. Access points and wireless bridges can be linked into a multi node premises Ethernet local area network.
  • Remote/central outdoor routers provide point-to-multipoint connectivity for carriers. Based on the WavePOINT II architecture, these devices serve up to 32 remote sites per segment and offer up to a 10-mile range. There are several antenna options, and the system supports indoor/outdoor connectivity.
  • The final product in the newly released Orinoco line is the AS-1000 high-security Access Server. According to Lucent, this device is particularly suitable for telecom and Internet service providers. It depends on RADIUS user authentication before access is granted and provides per-user, per-session security.

The RG-1000 and AS-1000 are completely new products, according to Champness. The residential wireless option is currently being offered in Apple iBooks. Lower-end Orinoco products became available through e-retail in March, and Lucent expects the high-end products to be retailed eventually; currently, high-end systems are available through Lucent value-added resellers and service providers.

Building upon their WaveLAN wireless system (shown here), Lucent Technologies recently introduced the Orinoco family of products. Orinoco incorporates home networking products as well as those commonly used in business environments.

Cabling Installation & Maintenance Editorial Mission

Installers of premises and campuswide communications systems face constantly evolving standards, products, and technology. Keeping pace with these changes requires access to current information from informed peers who are knowledgeable in fiber and copper technology relative to premises communications. Cabling Installation & Maintenance provides peer-to-peer perspective in its interpretation of standards and technology, its presentation of installation techniques and in the selection and use of products in premises communications.

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