Speedy 802.11a Gains Momentum

WLAN protocol successor 802.11a is making headway as manufacturers take advantage of reduced component prices and growing user interest to prepare products for the speedier specification

WLAN protocol successor 802.11a is making headway as manufacturers take advantage of reduced component prices and growing user interest to prepare products for the speedier specification.

The momentum has many calling 802.11a the heir apparent to the slower 802.11b—also known as WiFi—which itself is evolving beyond laptops into a variety of devices.

Support for 802.11a comes as 802.11g, which had been a favorite to take over for WiFi because of its speed and compatibility with 802.11b, remains mired in a standards battle.

The 802.11a standard, which supports data speeds of up to 54M bps, will get a big boost when startup Atheros Communications Inc. begins shipping its 802.11a silicon early next month, said officials at the Sunnyvale, Calif., company. Proxim Inc., TDK USA Corp. and Intel Corp. will be building PC Cards and access points based on the Atheros design. Each vendor is expected to showcase some of that new gear at the NetWorld+Interop trade show in Atlanta next month.

Early demonstrations of Atheros transceiver show data rates of around 48M bps when the radio and access point are in the same room. Atheros also has created proprietary Turbo Mode technology that enables speeds of up to 72M bps.

"Im going to switch our internal wireless faculty, staff [and] student net to 802.11a," said Kevin Baradet, network systems director at the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., and an eWeek Corporate Partner.

Baradet said 802.11a provides better throughput, adds the ability to support more users in a single area and reduces stray signals. As for 802.11g, "[its] stalled in the approval process, so Im not really keeping a close eye on [it]," he said.

Even Intersil Corp., the strongest proponent of 802.11g, intends to ship 802.11a products by next quarter—well in advance of any 802.11g gear, according to officials at the Palm Bay, Fla., company.

Intersil officials did not say which companies have committed to the companys 802.11a products, but the vendors 802.11b customers include Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Sony Corp. and 3Com Corp. Intersil and its partners will demonstrate new 802.11a gear at N+I, officials said.

As 802.11a builds up a head of steam, the battle between Texas Instruments Inc. and Intersil over 802.11g continues to hamper that WLAN (wireless LAN) protocol. The vendors have proposed different specifications for 802.11g, and the task force governing the standard is due to vote on the matter Sept. 22. Every major WLAN vendor has engineers on the task force, but support for 802.11g may be waning.

Still, compatibility remains an issue with IT managers who understand that 802.11g gear will work with an 802.11b infrastructure, while 802.11a products will not. For now, vendors seem content to get around that sticking point by developing dual-band radios and access points that support both 802.11a and 802.11b. Cornells Baradet said he intends to augment his system with the latest Enterasys Networks Inc. RoamAbout2 dual-mode access point.

Officials at Symbol Technologies Inc., in Holtsville, N.Y., said they are working with Intel to develop similar products. Agere Systems Inc. is anticipating the dual-band radio trend as well. Its AS2000 access server supports 802.11b but will support 802.11a cards when they are available, said officials at the Allentown, Pa., company.

Hope for 802.11a is built largely on the foundation of 802.11b, which, despite security concerns, has become well-entrenched in the enterprise. As 802.11a prepares to take the mantle as the WLAN workhorse, 802.11b is evolving beyond laptops and PC Cards.

802.11b is making its way into phones, which indicates that it could be a formidable competitor to cell phone networks. Carriers are starting to consider services that support both the so-called 3G services and 802.11b.

Symbol at N+I will announce its 802.11b NetVision Data phone, a portable device with a small screen that supports voice and data traffic for 802.11b and the ITU H.323 standard for voice over IP. Initial versions of the phone will support gateways from Cisco Systems Inc., with future versions supporting gateways from Nortel Networks Corp. and Mitel Networks Corp.

For security, the initial version of the phone will support 40-bit Wired Equivalent Privacy encryption. Future versions will support the Kerberos authentication protocol.