Is 802.11a Dead Before It Even Begins?

By John Taschek  |  Posted 2002-01-21 Print this article Print

We as consumers are stuck in a quandary. We want wireless. We don't want it to be prohibitively expensive, and we want it to be fully baked. 802.11 unfortunately is not.

Wireless networking keeps getting better and better. 802.11a-based devices are more than fast enough for most applications. And assuming you can find them and stomach the possibility that theyll be obsolete by years end, youll be a happy camper.

The newest 802.11a devices are just as polished as the 802.11b on the market. They should be, since the IEEE ratified the standards at the same time. In fact, the specifications are fundamentally the same, except that 802.11a devices are much faster (54M bps compared with 11M bps) and run at a higher frequency (5GHz compared with 2.4GHz). (For my Jan. 14 review of early 802.11a equipment, go to

But 802.11a devices also face the same security issues inherent in 802.11b, namely the weakness of WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy). The "a" devices crank up the encryption to 152-bit levels, but this doesnt get around the key concern that WEP was intended to keep transmissions private and not to restrict access to the network. Unfortunately, WEP isnt even good at keeping transmissions private without vendor enhancements.

Meanwhile, work on 802.11 rolls along. The IEEE tasked other groups to promote wireless networking. Next up is 802.11g—which is supposed to offer 22M bps while maintaining backward compatibility with 802.11b.

Then comes 802.11e, which offers the higher performance of 802.11a while adding a quality-of-service capability that makes multimedia transmissions and bandwidth management more feasible on the corporate network.

Finally, years down the road, will come 802.11i—the first standard that deals explicitly with security and authentication.

Alas, poor 802.11a might just be serving up an interim role only to be forgotten in a year or so.

The vendors that sell these units, of course, dont care all that much about these changes. The 802.11 standards have to be pushed through simply to fund further development. I wish that the IEEE were strong enough and forward-thinking enough to think these changes through because the market is getting to be quite confused.

We as consumers are stuck in a quandary. We want wireless. We dont want it to be prohibitively expensive, and we want it to be fully baked. 802.11 unfortunately is not.

Of course, Im not getting rid of mine.

Is 802.11a in your future? Write to me at

As the director of eWEEK Labs, John manages a staff that tests and analyzes a wide range of corporate technology products. He has been instrumental in expanding eWEEK Labs' analyses into actual user environments, and has continually engineered the Labs for accurate portrayal of true enterprise infrastructures. John also writes eWEEK's 'Wide Angle' column, which challenges readers interested in enterprise products and strategies to reconsider old assumptions and think about existing IT problems in new ways. Prior to his tenure at eWEEK, which started in 1994, Taschek headed up the performance testing lab at PC/Computing magazine (now called Smart Business). Taschek got his start in IT in Washington D.C., holding various technical positions at the National Alliance of Business and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. There, he and his colleagues assisted the government office with integrating the Windows desktop operating system with HUD's legacy mainframe and mid-range servers.

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