HiperLAN collapse opens European door to 802.11a

802.11a is the winner in the WLAN wars, and products based on the fast wireless network standard could finally become available here as early as mid-2002

Wireless LANs running at 54 megabits per second (mbps) could be available in the UK within six months, although politics could delay it till the end of 2002. The collapse of the rival HiperLAN standard gives the European standards agencies a short cut to approval of the 802.11a standard developed by the US-based IEEE standards body. However, licensing across Europe may be patchy as different national radio authorities will move at different speeds, and WLAN use may be restricted in some areas such as airports.

The imminent arrival of 802.11a will mean that businesses should be able to get their hands on a fast wireless LAN fairly soon, for use in offices or for wireless access points in public places. Previously it was less clear when the 802.11a standard would be available in Europe. Wireless LANs allow devices like laptops and PDAs with a WLAN connection to easily attach and detach themselves from the corporate network.

But the news also means that companies looking at installing slower 802.11b networks will want to re-evaluate their options, and possibly install an 802.11b system that is expandable to support 802.11a.

Ericsson, one of the leaders of the HiperLAN movement, has pulled out of that effort, effectively signalling its demise before products came to the market in any serious way. "We see the market as moving to 802.11a. Our focus is on 802.11a now," said an Ericsson spokesman.

HiperLAN and 802.11a are based on similar technology, operating in the 5GHz waveband. HiperLAN had technical advantages, such as the inclusion of quality of service which allows it to handle voice and streaming media, and technology to prevent interference with other 5GHz radio equipment; however, 802.11a stole a march by arriving first on the US market.

In order to achieve licences in Europe, 802.11a will have to acquire some of the features of HiperLAN. The IEEE is adding DFS (dynamic frequency selection) and TPC (transmit power control), which should meet the requirements of the European Telecommunication Standards Institute (ETSI), according to David Bradshaw, product line manager for Wireless LANs at Intel EMEA. The only problem is how ETSI can square 802.11a with its previous specification of HiperLAN as Europe's 5GHz WLAN standard.

"ETSI is pro-802.11a," said Bradshaw. "The pressure to reject it is coming from satellite providers and the military." These people -- who do not include commercial statellite TV providers like Sky -- apparently use 5GHz and want there to be no WLAN activity at all in "their" band, according to Bradshaw. "They want WLANs to go away."

"ETSI could simply define 802.11a as a type of HiperLAN," said Bradshaw. This could go through by the second quarter of 2002, and UK regulator the Radiocommunications Agency would follow suit quickly. "The UK RA is a proponent of 802.11a," he said pointing to its willingness to offer temporary licences to events such as London Fashion Week. "It could be weeks from an ETSI approval to products shipping in the UK."

More likely, however, ETSI will formally change the title of its standard, which would delay approvals until the fourth quarter of 2002.

In the meantime, Intel is shipping a dual-card access point, which will allow users to install 10mbps 802.11b WLANs and upgrade to 802.11a, or run two WLANs alongside each other, when the products are approved for use in the UK.

Ironically, the radio agencies may spike one of the leading proposed uses of the fast WLAN -- public WLANs known as "hotspots" in airport departure lounges that executives could use to check email while waiting for their flights. "The Netherlands' radio agency is keen to allow 802.11a but will not license it for use near Schiphol airport," said an Intel spokesman. In the long term, DFS and TPC should rule out interference with airport communications but the authorities will have to be convinced before they allow such WLANs.

Intel poured cold water on fears that 802.11a might be less useful than 802.11b because it has a shorter range. The real deal is, apparently, that 802.11a's speed does drop off faster with distance, from the maximum of 54mbps, but at any distance it will always give a faster throughput.

Meanwhile, an alternative IEEE proposal, 802.11g, which boosts the speed of wireless LANs on the 2.4GHz wave band is likely to be obsolete before it is delivered.

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