Cisco hedges 802.11 bets

eLABorations: Its wager-that 802.11a devices will be in demand, and 802.11b won't go away-is a good one

Most of the time, hedging bets is a sure recipe for failure, though lately it appears that some options traders on the stock market seem to be doing well. Ciscos big hedge, which comes in the form of the Aironet 1200 Access Point, is that theres going to be a demand for 802.11a devices and that 802.11b wont go away. Its not a bad bet to take.

Its clear that 802.11b has taken the world by storm—achieving the billion-dollar milestone in 2001, according to some analyst firms. (Note that those analyst firms toss all networking gear--including switches, routers, and hubs--into their estimates, so the amount actually spent on wireless is far less). Pervasive home use has made wireless a near commodity, however, so the wireless vendors are looking to prop up their margins. Most are betting on security enhancements. Others are betting on 802.11a—the high-speed 54M-bps version of the LAN standard. Cisco is betting on both and is doing so specifically to target enterprise customers.

The Cisco Aironet 1200 started shipping this week. In its current incarnation, its an 802.11b access point that, at $995, costs three times as much as other access points. But Cisco has made some modifications that make it worth the money, especially for companies interesting in adopting faster (and longer-range) 802.11a equipment.

Adoption of 802.11a is a big if. Moving to another standard is a tough sell, since many notebook manufacturers are beginning to include 802.11b, and the inexpensive 802.11b RF modules have proliferated in just about every kind of computing device. 802.11a also has been perceived as an intermediary standard—a kind of holding place in the wireless world until the 2.4GHz, 54M-bps 802.11g standard hits.

Ciscos bet is that 802.11a will be increasingly popular, especially in enterprises that need larger bandwidth and cleaner frequencies. These markets include health care, retail and perhaps transportation. We can only assume that this is why Cisco is designing and manufacturing the complete 802.11a end-to-end solution. Otherwise, it could have easily used third-party implementations from companies such as Atheros, and kept costs lower. So far, even though 802.11a has reached only a percent or two of the market, Cisco is counting on that small portion to pay bigger bucks.

Although the 1200 looks the same as many other access points, the design of the 1200 is quite different. First of all, it has a bottom hatch that covers the actual Aironet RF module. For 802.11 devices, Cisco uses third-party transceivers and has concentrated on MAC-level intellectual property. The main benefit is that Cisco offloads encryption and provides theoretically better performance (about 20 percent faster, according to Cisco engineers) than devices that use software to encrypt and decrypt the traffic.

The 802.11b module under the bottom hatch, meanwhile, can be upgraded at a later time, perhaps even to 802.11g when it ramps up in mid-2003.

Meanwhile, the Aironet 1200 also includes a module bay behind the device. This is where the 802.11a transceiver will fit, and it will be based purely on Cisco technology. Theres some bizarre law that prohibits 802.11a transceivers from shipping independently of their antennas. The law was intended to control power and frequency of devices so that the spectrum is better utilized. However, because of this law, when the 1200 is used in a dual 802.11b and -a mode, it will have to support two antennas. The 802.11b antenna is the pair of rabbit ears common on almost all of the early model 802.11b APs. The 802.11a antenna, however, is a flat-panel flip-down design. When folded down, the antenna is omnidirectional. When flipped up, the antenna is hemi-directional, giving enterprises some implementation flexibility.

Like the 350, the 1200 series will be shielded to achieve a plenum rating that will allow enterprises to install them above the ceiling tiles. Its unclear whether the 1200 will come "ruggedized" out of the box or whether the shielded version will be offered as an option, like the 350. However, enterprises should consider the plenum-rated access points since it can cost 200 percent more to bring standard devices up to code, according to Cisco officials.

Although the 1200 series access point is shipping now, the 802.11a cards and modules will not ship for 90 days—sometime in July.

Is 11M bps ever enough in the enterprise? Write me at