- Very high data rates at close range
- operation is essentially identical to 802.11b
- configurable antenna pattern.
- data rate falls off quickly with distance.
If you're interested in the latest, fastest wireless networking systems, read on. Intel's PRO/Wireless 5000 Access Point uses the 802.11a standard, aimed at providing high-speed cable-free network connections. Intel is the first vendor to submit 802.11a equipment to us for review, although other manufacturers are due to release products soon. The 802.11a standard uses the 5GHz radio band -- called the UNII spectrum in the US -- and has a raw data rate of 54Mbps. This is almost a five-times improvement over 802.11b wireless networking, in theory at least.
The unit is more stylish than most wireless network access points we've seen, although for a piece of business equipment this won't be a particularly high priority. The access point stands on its end, rather than lying flat, and is supplied with a bracket for wall or ceiling mounting. The external power supply connects using a separate cable, so you'll need a mains outlet within reasonable distance of your ideal access point location -- Intel hasn't chosen to power the unit over the network cable, a feature which is appearing on more access points.
The adapter card available to complement the access point, which we used during our review, has a CardBus interface, since the standard PC Card interface isn't fast enough for 802.11a's higher throughput. Most notebooks now have at least one CardBus-enabled slot, so this shouldn't create a problem unless you have an older notebook.
You configure the access point using your Web browser -- there's no serial port on the unit to do out-of-band administration. The interface is simple enough, and there's an express setup option that goes through enough settings to get you up and running.
Most aspects of 802.11a's operation are identical to 802.11b. You need to set a Service Set ID (SSID) -- a name for the wireless network -- and a channel number in the access point, and set the same SSID for any network adapters you want to use. That's enough to get you connected, but, as with 802.11b, this configuration will leave your network open to unauthorised users.
The security protocol used is Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), which has been shown to have flaws that a determined attacker could use to gain access to your network. It will stop casual intruders and, for the time being at least, the lack of availability of 802.11a equipment means that attacks are unlikely. However, you can run a VPN across the wireless connection if you want to make sure your data's secure.
You can control the access point's antenna pattern in the configuration, allowing omni-directional or half-circle patterns. The latter pattern is most useful when the access point is mounted on a thick or outside wall, where half the signal would be wasted anyway. By redirecting the output forwards you can, in theory, get better reception in areas where it matters. Our tests showed that this is true to a certain extent, but the improvement isn't dramatic.
We tested the access point's throughput using e-Testing Labs' NetBench and a single client. We tested at a range of distances indoors to see how quickly the data rate dropped off as the separation between client and access point increased. What our tests showed was that at close range you can get very good throughput, with up to 25Mbps measured in the half-circle configuration. The performance falls off between 10m and 20m, and then settles to around 15Mbps throughput irrespective of distance. The half-circle antenna configuration gives a higher throughput generally, although the difference isn't startling.
The handshaking involved in 802.11 protocols means you don't get the full channel speed for data throughput. Generally, if you get half the raw data rate when transferring files, for instance, you're not doing badly. Our tests show that at close range at least, you do get the expected throughput from Intel's 802.11a equipment. Performance drops off quickly, and although this drop-off is disappointing, it's worth noting that throughput remains well above that of 802.11b -- up to 40m radius, at least. Bear in mind that, like all wireless networking, 802.11a is a shared medium: once you start adding more clients to the network the data rate for each client will fall.
Intel intends to release an adapter for the access point to add 802.11b networking, which will also turn it into a bridge between the two standards. To what extent this will complicate the management of the system remains to be seen.
If you're expecting to get amazing throughput at any range out of an 802.11a network, you're in for a disappointment. High data rates are certainly possible, but at present you have to be fairly close to an access point to get them. Further away and five times 802.11b throughput quickly drops to three times. You should also bear in mind that obstructions will also affect throughput, and in a crowded office you may not get the rates we observed in our tests.
The cost-per-megabit-per-second of the PRO/Wireless 5000 Access point means that only businesses with a real need for higher wireless speeds should buy it. Home users will get very little, if anything from this equipment over 802.11b kit, which will still be faster than your broadband connection. There is also some doubt over the long-term future of the 802.11a standard in Europe, and there are competing standards under consideration. However, any such equipment isn't available yet, so if you need the extra speed without cables, you'll have to consider the PRO/Wireless 5000.