Faster than a speeding 802.11b

If you're pushing the limits of your 802.11b WLAN and just can't squeeze another bps out of it, take heart. Texas Instruments developed technology to hop up 802.11b--call it b+--and keep 802.11a at bay for now.

If you have 802.11b wireless equipment, you're undoubtedly frustrated by the plodding pace. The standard may be rated at 11Mbps, but in the real world it's a 3Mbps connection.

Still, you're probably not willing to junk your investment in wireless LAN for the faster, but incompatible, 802.11a. But Texas Instruments has created a new version of 802.11. It's called 802.11b+ and it delivers a rated maximum throughput of 22Mbps.

First, the bad news. 802.11b+ is not now, nor ever likely to be, an official IEEE standard like 802.11a. It's TI's own add-on to existing 802.11 technology. But, hey, if you can double your wireless speed, increase your roaming range from the wireless access point, and you don't have to replace your old 802.11b equipment, wouldn't you be tempted?

D-Link is hoping you will, based on its AirPlus line of 802.11b+ wireless access points and network interface cards (NICs). But it isn't the only vendor that sees a market opening between older, slower 802.11b and newer, faster 802.11a WLAN equipment. Two major Taiwanese chip manufacturers, NDC and Global Sun Technology, will soon release wireless access points and NICs that will appear in the United States under a variety of brand names.

The good news? While you can't squeeze 22Mbps (6Mbps in the real world) out of your existing 802.11b equipment or increase its range, you can use your old hardware with your new 802.11b+ NICs and wireless access points and vice versa, though you won't achieve the higher speeds unless both the wireless access points and NICs are b+.

TI pulls this trick off in its ACX100 and low-powered TNETW1100B chipsets by incorporating 802.11b into the design, then adding its trademarked Packet Binary Convolutional Code (PBCC) technology.

While you may not have heard of PBCC, it's been in the works since 2000 and was always meant to work with 802.11b. PBCC achieves its higher throughput and range by using forward error correcting and 64-state symbols. The 5.5Mbps and 11Mbps speeds of 802.11b, on the other hand, depend on Complementary Code Keying, which can handle only an eighth as much data. Processing overhead and error handling combine so that, in theory, PBCC can only reach 33Mbps. But, still, 802.11b+'s rated top end is 22Mbps, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Of course, any company can claim that its technology is faster than a souped-up Ferrari, but the real question is how well does it run on the track. And, in the case of 802.11b+, the answer is, pretty darn fast. In ZDNet's reviews of the AirPlus DI-614+ wireless router and the D-Link AirPlus DWL-900AP+, both systems delivered real world speeds above 4.5Mbps in 802.11b mode and the DI-614+ delivered 6.3Mbps in b+ mode. Of course, none of these speeds are close to what the vendors and standard makers say that they'll deliver, but then no one delivers on those promises. D-Link and TI, though, come closer than most.

TI also claims that 802.11b+ will deliver up to 20 percent more coverage than plain-jane 802.11b. We, however, haven't seen any proof that this claim is real. In theory, it should be more than 802.11b, but as we've learned, when it comes to wireless, theory will never take the place of testing.

Had TI been able to make PBCC the basis of the official IEEE 802.11g standard from the start, we would know by now exactly what 802.11b+ could and couldn't do. Instead, TI and Intersil fought a long, messy fight over whose standards would go into 802.11g and, for a while, TI's PBCC was completely out of the picture. When push came to shove, PBCC finally made it into the official 802.11g specification. In the meantime, though, TI, not wanting to waste its PBCC efforts, had added PBCC to its b chips, resulting in the b+ devices on store shelves today.

Should you consider giving b+ a try? The devices cost about the same as their older 802.11b cousins and are compatible with them. But this is wireless computing, and something new is always tooling down the raceway, such as the forthcoming NetGear Dual Band PC Card with built-in 802.11b and 802.11a compatibility. Of course, 802.11b+ equipment does have one advantage over the combo designs and the forthcoming 802.11g equipment: you can buy it today.

Does 802.11b meet your needs--would you be willing to try b+ or will you wait for 802.11a? TalkBack below or e-mail us with your thoughts.