Beware of non-standard WiFi

With 802.11 wireless LANs taking off amongst users, we are seeing a disturbing trend for vendors to tweak the standards

As more Wi-Fi (802.11 wireless LAN) products appear, vendors are starting to produce versions that improve on the basic performance of the Wi-Fi standards. however, in so doing, they may harm user confidence in the technology, by delivering products that do not work with those of other vendors.

Proxim is a company that's been in the wireless networking business just about as long as wireless networking has been around, and which attempted to gather industry support for its own "OpenAir" protocol as an alternative to the Wi-Fi standard.

Proxim's Harmony product line, aimed at the enterprise, includes long and short haul wireless networking, and supports both 802.11b and the newer, faster, 802.11a standard -- as well as OpenAir, of course. At NetWorld+Interop, the company announced that its 802.11a access point and adapters will support 802.1x security. This generic access control protocol, which features dynamic keys that help stymie hackers, and passes authentication to existing Radius databases on the network, which allows for greater scalability. 802.1x has been covered in depth in this TechUpdate UK article.

In common with other Wi-Fi vendors, Proxim has launched dual-mode products which support both 802.11a and 802.11b, so users can migrate from one to the other -- although the base stations for 802.11a have to be closer together for the full 54 Megabits per second (Mbps) speed.

As if this weren't enough, Proxim's 802.11a products use a technology the company calls 2X Turbo Mode to over nearly twice the bandwidth -- about 100Mbps.

Other companies, such as SMC, are also pushing their 802.11a products beyond the speed limit, but most are achieving maximum rates of 72Mbps. Proxim warns, however, that the increased speed does have a price -- coverage cells will be smaller.

Meanwhile, EnGenius, is intent on exceeding another Wi-Fi limitation -- range of operations. EnGenius has been in the telephony business for 23 years, and used Networld+Interop to draw attention to its recent forays into wireless networking. The company sells a range of 802.11b products, from consumer-oriented devices to enterprise offerings such as outdoor access points, routers, and bridges.

EnGenius claims that its Type II PCMCIA wireless adapter has about twice the range of a conventional adapter, which seems on the face of it unlikely, given the fact that its EL-2511 CD Plus operates at only twice the power of conventional Wi-Fi units (200mW instead of 200mW). The inverse square law under which radio operats would predict at least four times the power to double the range.

Other wireless companies are undoubtedly working on 802.11 products that will exceed the protocol's published limits. This, of course, is business as usual in the tech world. Some see this as a shot in the arm for Wi-Fi, by offering speeds which approach those of the wired network and greater ranges. "Deploying Wi-Fi in enterprise and public environments will not only get a lot easier, but those implementations will be more usable, said one observer.

To others it seems not so much like a shot in the arm, as the Wi-Fi industry preparing to shoot itself in the foot. "When I read of people messing with standards I want to put a brick through the screen," said one technology advisor. "It can only have a bad effect on user confidence."

Rich Castagna of Cnet contributed to this article

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