New Options Help Sort Out 802.11

WLAN vendors are navigating the confusing 802.11 landscape with new multiplatform products that let users tap the best current technologies.

WLAN vendors are navigating the confusing 802.11 landscape with new multiplatform products that let users tap the best current technologies, while others are helping sort through 802.11s security and protocol confusion.

Broadcom Corp. this week will jump into the 802.11a market with a three-chip, dual-band chip set that supports 802.11a, which offers data rates of up to 54M bps, and 802.11b, the current, popular standard, which offers rates of up to 11M bps.

The chip set offers the option of a 16-bit interface, in addition to the standard 32-bit interface, said officials at the Irvine, Calif., company. This marks the first product that accommodates 802.11a PCI cards and handheld support.

Handheld support for 802.11a is important to IT managers who want to monitor networks for insecure or rogue wireless LANs with packet-sniffing products that run on Microsoft Corp.s Pocket PC devices.

"Most people are buying dual-mode stuff that can be upgraded to 802.11a," said Jeff Smith, system engineering manager at Vernier Networks Inc., in Mountain View, Calif. "Handheld support for [802.11a] is not a pressing issue yet, but it certainly will be."

The dual-band chip set should appear in end-user products from major PC vendors next quarter, Broadcom officials said. The same chip-set design can be configured to support 802.11 networks and WANs in response to requests from wireless carriers, officials said. Broadcom is also working on single-chip, dual-band solutions.

Another vendor, 3Com Corp., this fall will introduce WLAN access points that support 802.11a, 802.11b or 802.11g exclusively but can be upgraded with a second transceiver to support more than one protocol simultaneously, said officials of the Santa Clara, Calif., company.

Through Commworks Corp., a 3Com subsidiary, the company is working with carriers to come up with solutions that support both WAN and WLAN technologies.

"Theyre looking at ways to integrate support for softswitching with back-end services for both WLANs and wireless WANs," said Gilles Ganault, product manager for WLAN infrastructure at 3Com.

Meanwhile, industry groups are working on two issues close to the hearts of WLAN users: security and multiprotocol confusion.

Members of the IEEE met last week in Vancouver, British Columbia, to discuss ways to secure WLANs. The 802.11i WLAN security protocol, which fixes holes in Wired Equivalent Privacy, is not due until September of next year.

Vendors are working on an interim technology that will create new security keys on the fly. It will include Temporal Key Internet Protocol and a new protocol, Safe Secure Network. Although it wont be an official IEEE standard, the interim protocol likely will be required for Wi-Fi certification from the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, said meeting attendees.

"We want to roll out an interim solution before the end of the year," said Jim Lansford, vice president of business development at Mobilian Corp., in Hillsboro, Ore., a maker of dual-band chip sets and a member of the IEEE. "Theres so much concern about security that the WECA folks want to calm fears now."

In addition to speeding up security efforts, WECA, in San Jose, Calif., is working to make the melange of WLAN products less confusing. With six flavors of 802.11 in the works, WECA has dispensed with plans to name and certify each permutation, opting, instead, for a "nutritional box" approach, due next month, in which tested products will receive the Wi-Fi logo, along with a list of check boxes that tell which protocols the product supports, according to sources familiar with the plan.

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