Q&A: The Wi-Fi Alliances Chairman Chats About 802.11g

Talking the latest, greatest Wi-Fi flavor with the man who oversees certification of wireless networking products based on the IEEE 802.11 standards.

While 802.11b Wi-Fi wireless networks have been one of the hottest technology categories of the past couple of years, a new, faster standard for wireless networking is upon us: 802.11g. We saw some of the first 802.11g products at this years massive Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

Although 802.11b wireless networking products, which work in the 2.4-GHz frequency band, have been big successes, the standard has a maximum data transfer rate of only 11 Mbps. But 802.11g wireless networking products aim to deliver 54-Mbps speeds in the 2.4-GHz frequency band, offering backward compatibility with the 802.11b products.

Dennis Eaton, Chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance, is involved in an effort to certify 802.11g access points, PC cards, and other products for interoperability. That effort could take on importance, because while some consumers are already moving to 802.11g, many businesses are waiting until 802.11g is ratified as a standard. That ratification is expected this summer. Here, Eaton predicts what lies ahead for a faster wireless networking standard.

PC Mag: What is your interoperability certification effort all about?
Eaton: The core mission of the Wi-Fi Alliance is to certify the interoperability of products based on the IEEE 802.11 standards. The a and b standards are ones weve already done certification programs for. Its time for us to do the same with g now, so were putting together test beds and other processes to do that.

PCM: Word from analysts is that consumers will move to 802.11g quickly, but businesses will wait for standardization. Is that what you see ahead?
Eaton: Its a fair assessment. Enterprises are more conservative in their buying habits and tend to be focused on what is standard versus pre-standard. Consumers are more focused on the latest, greatest features. We expect that the ratification of the g standard will come around June. By fall, many enterprises will start upgrading their wireless networks.

PCM: If I have an 802.11b network in my office, what will be involved in going to g?
Eaton: Two things will need to happen. First, you need to upgrade your access points to 802.11g. Access point products are already shipping from companies such as Buffalo and Linksys. Then, either all at once, or over time, you would upgrade your clients to 802.11g capability. The more 802.11g clients you add to the network, the faster the aggregate network throughput will be. If you have a pure 802.11g network, the network throughput would probably be on the order of 24 Mbps or a little higher. Somewhere in that ballpark.

PCM: So the number everyone throws around for 802.11g speed—54-Mbps—isnt exactly what Id see?
Eaton: Thats the actual data rate, but theres overhead associated with protocols that handle contention on the network, [and that ensure] reliable communications because this is an RF network, and those sorts of things. These bring the overall throughput down into the mid-20 range.

PCM: What categories of shipping products for 802.11g are out there now?
Eaton: There are the access points already mentioned. Then there are also PC Cards. Those are the two main categories now, but very shortly youll see mini-PCI cards as 802.11g becomes embedded in laptops, and then youll see USB adapters. [USB is] a very popular product category today with the b technology, but those b adapters are all USB 1.1 adapters. To get the speed that 802.11g promises, youll see people developing USB 2.0 adapters.

PCM: When will your certified products show up?
Eaton: The standard will probably come about in June, and Wi-Fi certified products will show up in the July time frame. Enterprises will move to 802.11g in the fall, and theyll care about both a ratified standard and interoperability certification.

PCM: What will need to happen for 802.11g to have true backward compatibility for both b and a products?
Eaton: Thats the future. 802.11g operates in the same band as b. So that makes backward compatibility with b easy, but over the longer term, people will develop dual-band chip sets that can speak to both the 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands. These are trickling onto the market now, but almost all devices—on the client side and the access point side—are going to dual-band. Thats whats needed to be backward compatible with b as well as a.