New wireless LAN standard raises concerns

A new standard for wireless LAN may come out within two years, but some industry players warn that the pending approval of the 802.11g standard may lead to confusion.

A new standard for wireless LAN may come out within two years, but some industry players warn that the pending approval of the 802.11g standard may lead to confusion.

The standard, now given tentative approval by the industry standards group Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), has the potential to make way for technology that will speed up wireless Internet connections in homes and businesses, as well as public places. To place it in perspective, technology that adheres to the 802.11b standard can reach data transfer rates of 11 Mbits/sec. By comparison, technology that would adhere to the 802.11g standard would be five times faster, reaching data transfer rates of 54 Mbits/sec.

Al Petrick, vice chairman of the IEEE 802.11 committee (www.ieee.org), says IEEE developed the 802.11g standard to enable a higher data rate in the 2.4 GHz band. This would effectively extend the data transfer rate of 802.11b by greater than 20 Mbits/sec.

Petrick says the standard probably won't come to fruition until early 2003, but the proposal is already causing controversy as some technology executives say it isn't needed.

"Hopefully, they will get a clear marketing message across to all of the vendors on what this new technology is," says Greg Collins, director of the Dell'Oro Group (www.delloro.com), a marketing research firm based in Redwood City, CA.

The Dell'Oro Group reports that the wireless LAN 802.11b market grew 9% with revenues of $310 million in the third quarter. The group reports that despite the recent introduction of higher-speed 802.11a products, the outlook for 802.11b continues to be strong, despite a weak economy. The group forecasts that the 802.11b market will grow 35% in 2002.

801.11a products operate in the less crowded 5 GHz frequency, but are incompatible with 11b products.

Analysts point out that the growth for 802.11b is taking place despite the recent introduction of higher-speed 802.11a products. Part of the reason is that 802.11b products have been on the market for two years. As the product volume grew, prices quickly dropped, leading to their increased popularity.

"We see that continuing as more and more people want to use broadband connections or Internet connections at home or among multiple computers," says Collins.

In theory, 802.11g technology would be compatible with wireless networking kits that use the popular 802.11b standard. But not everyone is convinced. Some worry that a third standard could confuse and frustrate consumers who may buy wireless networking products that are not compatible with each other.

Collins says the standards committee has taken the first step by "unmuddying the waters" and deciding the direction of the technology. But he also says it must clarify the direction.

Among the issues to be worked out, Petrick says, are deciphering how the different modulations-PBCC, OFDM and CCK-will interoperate or co-exist in the 2.4 GHz band. He acknowledges there is bound to be confusion if IEEE does not come to a consensus on how the new modulation technology will be compatible with older technology.

"If you compare products that are out there, 802.11b is a clear product, 802.11a is a clear product. But 802.11g is kind of a little bit of everything," says Petrick. "It's got three modulation types."

Petrick notes that these issues, in fact, are the reason the committee is a year late in completing the standard. But he says much of the answers will rest with the IEEE's publicity group, and the Wireless Internet Com patibility Alliance. Both, he says, must make sure that there is a "strong statement" made about the proposed standard and the technology to which it will open doors.

- Brian Milligan

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