Early 802.11g Entries Deliver the Speed But Require Some Maintenance

We all want 54-Mbps wireless without the flaws of the 802.11a standard, but is it here yet? Find out if you should take the g plunge with offerings from Buffalo, D-Link, and Linksys.

The next big thing in wireless networking is here. Almost. Early indications are that 802.11g is going to be a hot technology. Early adopters will include home and small-office users who have not yet committed to a wireless standard, followed by businesses looking to upgrade their 802.11b LANs.

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Why? Because 802.11g products support data rates of up to 54 megabits per second (versus 11 Mbps for the now-common 802.11b products) while still maintaining the range that 802.11b users have grown accustomed to expecting. That bandwidth is enough to handle many concurrent users (important in a business environment) or even streaming video (which opens up uses for wireless in the home). Whats more, since 802.11g access points and routers are backward-compatible with existing Wi-Fi– certified 802.11b client products, businesses can migrate to 802.11g without abandoning their 802.11b installed bases.

Should you sign up, you ask? Theres just one problem: Despite the availability of 802.11g products in the market (such as the ones we test here from Buffalo Technology, D-Link Systems, and Linksys Group), the final 802.11g standard has not yet been set by the IEEE governing body. That has led to a host of worries, from questions about interoperability to fears that should early, non-standards-compliant products fail to work as advertised, consumers will be put off when standard 802.11g products arrive later this year.

Marketplace confusion is a valid concern. Each of the manufacturers with products out now acknowledges that those products are "pre-standard" and "draft-compliant." The question is, which draft? In the second week of January, for example, the 802.11g task group voted to ratify a new version, labeled 6.1. Various groups within the IEEE will still hold additional rounds of balloting, so its unlikely that the 802.11g draft will become a standard much before May or June of this year.

Equipment makers are making sure that when the standard is finally ratified, theyll be able to upgrade their routers/access points and network adapters to compliance using a firmware flash or driver update. Buffalo goes so far as to guarantee upgradability; otherwise it will replace the draft-compliant products with fully compliant ones.

In fact, while we were reviewing these products, both Buffalo and Linksys supplied us with firmware patches to solve problems with legacy 802.11b clients. So at the very least, early adopters need to be prepared to maintain their clients and infrastructure components with occasional patches until the standard is finalized.