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WiFi for wireless LANs

WECA pitches a new "WiFi" certification as a way to guarantee cross-vendor compatibility
Written by John G.Spooner, Contributor

Why can't wireless local area network (LAN) hardware all just get along? The Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance says it can. The year-old standards body, know as WECA, announced on Wednesday that it has created an interoperability test which will ensure wireless hardware using the 802.11b standard for radio frequency communications is compatible.

Devices adhering to the 802.11b standard sport a bandwidth of 11MB/s, which can move close to 1MB of data per second between two PCs, according to WECA. Products that pass the WECA test will be stamped with a WECA seal of approval, called "WiFi" (pronounced Y-Phi) for "wireless fidelity". The stamp, WECA hopes, will help consumers identify products that are interoperable, thus making the decision to purchase that much easier.

For consumers, WiFi certification will mean that a wide array of wireless LAN cards and base stations will be compatible straight out of the box. That means one of Apple Computer's iBook portables equipped with its wireless LAN cards would be able to communicate with a wireless network based on hardware from Cisco's Aironet division. Alternatively, two notebook PCs with different wireless LAN cards could even share files.

Today, wireless LAN cards and base stations from different vendors that use 802.11b aren't able to communicate out of the box. A base station, such as Apple's Airport, connects multiple PCs using wireless LAN cards to a physical network. The test provided by WECA would require vendors to change certain device settings in order to allow the devices to communicate.

"We say this is the configuration you should ship (hardware) in the default mode," said Jim Zyren, senior manger of strategic marketing at WECA member Intersil, which manufactures chips used in wireless LAN products.

PC makers such as Dell Computer and Compaq have fielded their own wireless offerings. Dell, for example, offers wireless LAN cards to go with its notebook PCs. These PC makers, as well as IBM, are WECA members, meaning -- at least in theory -- that their hardware will soon be WiFi-compatible.

Other vendors can get in on the WiFi action, too. A firmware upgrade, at most, should bring existing wireless LAN cards and base stations up to spec, so that they will be compatible with other makers' devices, according to WECA. These upgrades will be offered by participating members on their own schedules. WECA members include Cisco, 3Com, Lucent Technologies, Symbol Technologies, Nokia, Philips, Fujitsu, Sony, Siemens, AMD, Samsung, Telxon and Wayport, among others.

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