Faster WLAN promise may obscure benefits of current products

Suppliers rushing to offer 54Mbps wireless LANs - which cannot be used in Europe yet - may distract users from the benefits of 11Mbps systems

Suppliers are launching wireless LAN equipment which will be ready for higher speed transmission when European regulations allow its use, although suppliers competing to establish the new standard may simply cause confusion amongst users and hamper the uptake of existing WLAN products.

Both Agere, the former Lucent division, and Intel, are launching similar products - a wireless base station with room for two transmitters, supporting the upcoming 54Mbps 802.11a technology alongside the existing 802.11b standard which offers 11Mbps. When these products are sold in Europe, the second slot must remain empty until the middle of next year, as 802.11a uses a different portion of radio spectrum from 802.11b and the standard must be adjusted and approved by the European telecoms standardiser, ETSI.

Agere's AP-2000 two-slot wireless access point costs $1295, and is available now, with no 802.11a card. Intel's is cheaper at $490 and it will have 802.11a cards when it is launched in January - although they will not be for sale in Europe. Intel's wireless LAN products are made by Symbol Technologies.

It looks very much as if Intel is aiming to use price to take market share from Agere, which claims about 50 percent of the WLAN market. However, users should not make snap decisions based on price, warned Mario Maas, business manager at Agere. "Users will pay this to future proof their wireless LANs," he said. Agere's products are still better known as WaveLAN, although the company changed the name to Orinoco earlier this year when it was spun out of Lucent.

Besides getting the standard approved, vendors have several obstacles to establishing 802.11a, which operates at 5GHz. The wireless cards will cost twice as much as 2.4GHz cards when they arrive. "In the beginning 5GHz will be for early adopters" said Maas. "It will explode when the price comes down in 2003 or 2004."

Another problem is that 5GHz WLANs have shorter range than 2.4GHz ones, so users re-using a set of base stations (the model proposed by both Intel and Agere) will find they either have to install extra stations to fill in the gaps, or accept that the faster speed will only be available in limited areas.

More confusingly, the European approval will require some small changes to the standard, to prevent broadcasts leaking into military bandwidths, so any existing 802.11a products will need to be changed for the European market.

Intel's products have based their "media access control" (MAC) which handles the radio on software, so it can be upgraded easily, but this has the drawback that it will require compute resources. Agere says it is delaying its 802.11a cards to make sure they can be implemented in hardware. "We are not rushing to the 5GHz market because we do not want to disappoint people," said Maas.

Both Intel and Agere talk about a big market arriving for 802.11 LANs. "At the moment it is an after market [people add WLANs to existing machines] but it will be integrated into one chip," said Nigel Towell, head of marketing at Intel's UK LAN access division.

"802.11a may have a bad effect on the market in the short term," said consultant and commentator Manek Dubash, speaking at the NetEvents conference in Lisbon, Portugal, where Agere and Intel spoke of their plans to promote it. "It may divert people from the opportunity for 802.11b."

The 11Mbps offered by 802.11b will be enough for most people's needs, even when shared with others on the LAN. The radio frequencies used by the faster standard also have more danger of being absorbed by things in their path, creating possible performance problems.

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