Slow to Get a Handle

Industry adoption of spec has yet to gain speed; lack of support for PDAs among major obstacles.

Industry adoption of the fastest WLAN standard has been slow.

While the overall wireless LAN market is growing, various factors are hampering adoption of 802.11a, the wireless standard that transmits data five times faster than its predecessor, the entrenched 802.11b.

Among the obstacles is client support. While wireless networks are about mobility, 802.11a does not support the most mobile of computers—PDAs (personal digital assistants) based on Palm Inc.s Palm OS or Microsoft Corp.s Pocket PC.

"802.11a isnt expected to be viable in PDAs for some time," said Ron Seide, product line manager for WLANs at Cisco Systems Inc., in San Jose, Calif., which plans to ship client cards and access points this summer that support 802.11a and 802.11b.

The problem is in the interface. 802.11a supports only Cardbus, a 32-bit interface. Most handheld computers support only 16-bit interfaces. This has discouraged potential customers from adopting 802.11a, according to officials at Symbol Technologies Inc., which specializes in wireless solutions for vertical markets.

"It would have been simple for the 802.11a folks to support both [Cardbus and 16-bit interfaces]," said Ray Martino, vice president of network products at Symbol, in San Jose. "They made a mistake. If one person had them, wed use their chips. If you look in the enterprise, the majority of the wireless LAN applications are in businesses that need handheld-centric applications."

Officials at Intel Corp. said the company is working to improve support for 802.11a by building radios and supporting the technology in its handheld processors.

"People need to have confidence that this [802.11a] is big," said Taizoon Doctor, general manager of the mobile communications division platform networking group at Intel, in Hillsboro, Ore. "X-scale processors will support [802.11a] and dual-band as well," Doctor said. But, Doctor added, there is no time frame for that.

Officials at Atheros Communications Inc., on the other hand, said the company has no plans to support 16-bit interfaces in its products.

"[As a handheld user,] if I dont get anything out of going to [802.11a], then why would I bother?" asked Rich Redelfs, president and CEO of Atheros, in Sunnyvale, Calif. Redelfs said that even if they had the interface support, many handheld computers dont have the power to take advantage of 802.11as 54M-bps data rate.

Intel officials said the company is working on power management technology that will enable the client to go to sleep when not downloading data. But for now, Atheros opinion about 802.11a is most important. "The problem with 802.11a is that Atheros is the only one [that sells 802.11a chip sets]," said Intels Doctor.

While the IEEE ratified 802.11a at the same time as 802.11b, Atheros is the only company shipping chip sets that support the technology.

Although Intel and Cisco plan to develop their own 802.11a chip sets, both use the Atheros chip sets in their 802.11a access points.

Interoperability testing doesnt work when only one company has a product to test. The Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, the main testing group for WLANs, championed 802.11b last year by renaming it Wi-Fi and publicizing interoperability testing with its official Wi-Fi seal on all products that passed the tests. WECA cant test Atheros radios against themselves, however.

And while customers are waiting for interoperability tests, they are also waiting for future 802.11 standards from the IEEE.

WLAN equipment manufacturers including Symbol, Cisco, Atheros, Texas Instruments Inc. and Intel have told customers about another upcoming standard called 802.11g.

802.11g promises speeds of up to 54M bps, but it also runs in the same radio band as 802.11b, which may make upgrades easier.

This is important to IT managers who feel that 802.11b is fine for now but may not always be.

"802.11b offers us sufficient capacity for what were doing," said Nathan Lemmon, senior technical adviser for Wireless Systems Development at Federal Express Corporate Services, a division of FedEx Corp. "Were keeping an eye on 802.11a, but were trying to keep the design of the infrastructure to where we can easily upgrade to the higher bandwidth."

The education community seems to be the one market with definite plans for 802.11a as soon as possible, as students who have heard about it are asking for it. "They expect fast wireless access," said Kevin Baradet, network systems director for technology services at the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., and an eWeek Corporate Partner.

In fact, 802.11g wont be ratified until at least January, according to the IEEE. Some companies claim to be offering g-like products, but the IEEE is warning its members and their customers against promising such products.

"It is improper to claim compliance with a standard or any amendment that has not yet been approved," said IEEE 802.11 Chairman Stuart Kerry in a letter to working group members. "Products released based on draft standards or draft amendments are at significant risk of being noncompliant and incompatible with the standard or amendment that is ultimately ratified."