Faster Wi-Fi Standard Offers No "G" Whiz

The ratification of 802.11g introduces the heir apparent to the dominant 802.11b standard, but will it be enough to knock 802.11a off the "A-list" of network standards? The two technologies may find markets in each other's turf.

The IEEEs approval of the final draft of the 802.11g specification on Thursday was in many ways a non-event. Vendors have been shipping devices based on the draft specification for months, and most say that the specification has changed little. The minor tweaks that were created to enhance compatibility with the slower but far more common 802.11b standard should be addressable with a flash upgrade from any of the major vendors. Of course, this process could prove cumbersome for any organization that was enough of an early adopter to deploy multiple 802.11g access points, but those IT departments were asleep at the console if they didnt realize the risk of working with a draft specification before implementation.

802.11g doesnt represent the first higher-speed wireless LAN. That distinction went to 802.11a, which will still beat 802.11g in most real-world conditions, particularly since neither standard is quite as fast as you might believe. Furthermore, the limited speed of cable modems and consumer DSL will keep the higher speeds of 802.11g from improving shared broadband in the home.

That said, 802.11g should prove an excellent bridge to a faster generation of network flexibility for almost all laptops with Wi-Fi cards today. By maintaining compatibility with the 802.11b standard deployed in many wireless LANs, hotels, Starbucks and even McDonalds, 802.11g does not require users to choose between high speed and compatibility.

802.11g could well become the 100Base-T of wireless networking. Just like 100Base-T is still used extensively on 10Base-T networks, many 802.11g clients will be connecting to 802.11b access points for the foreseeable future. However, it remains to be seen if 802.11a will become the wireless equivalent of HPs 100VG AnyLAN. This one-time contender for the future of twisted-pair Ethernet lost in the marketplace even though many thought it was the better solution. At least one Wi-Fi pioneer thinks the battle is already over; Apple CEO Steve Jobs has said he believes that 802.11a is doomed to failure.

The supply-side prospects for "g" seem to outweigh any possible demand-side factors for now. Indeed, Apple has replaced 802.11b with 802.11g across its PowerBook line, and you can expect other notebook vendors to follow suit since the only drawback is the greater cost of the new standard; this disadvantage should fade as volume increases. The real question, though, is whether a leading application will emerge for "g." Running multiple audio streams around a network may be one candidate, but video will probably be better served by the faster 802.11a.

Because of the relative lack of interference within the 5-GHz band in which 802.11a operates, vendors are pushing it toward the enterprise while recommending 802.11g for the home. However, just the reverse could happen. With a speed thats more than fast enough for most tasks these days and backward compatibility, corporations will certainly find 802.11g attractive. Meanwhile, consumer-electronics companies seeking to pioneer networked video outside the scope of the PC—as Moxi Digital sought to do— could attempt to minimize interference with 802.11a.

Ross Rubin is editor of the Ziff Davis Wireless Supersite.

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