Wanted: Wi-Fi Lite

The popular wireless networking standard has gotten faster and jumped into the 5-GHz band, but it still hasn't penetrated into simple non-PC devices. Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin wants a low-power, low-cost version of the Wi-Fi standard.

By the end of this year, 802.11b should be dead. Actually, it will surely be the Wi-Fi standard that has the greatest usage, but as a product category it will cease to be. With chip vendors focusing on dual-band solutions and 802.11g offering backward compatibility, 802.11b will be effectively replaced by two standards that far exceed its speed.

While its easy to get customers excited about faster speeds, very few users do anything that taxes the capacity of even 802.11b. Both media professionals and bleeding-edge home network enthusiasts have a pressing need to pump multiple streams of MPEG-2 around a wireless LAN, but for the most common applications, either of the supposed 54 Mbps solutions is overkill.

However, a whole new category of users would benefit if Wi-Fi could be made cheaper, even if it had to take a speed hit. A slower Wi-Fi, dare we say "Wi-Fi Lite," would likely translate into lower cost, higher range, and longer battery life. Why would anyone need this?

I recently encountered an example of such an application. A friend who is active in his colleges alumni group was looking for a way to contact on-campus church attendees silently from miles away with an inexpensive device. The college had tried one of those restaurant notification systems like JTechs Glowster (which, unlike Friendster, doesnt bombard you with countless solicitations). Unfortunately, the Glowster, which operates at 27 MHz, didnt have sufficient range. Could he, he asked, take advantage of the campus-wide Wi-Fi network to notify them via some kind of "Wi-Fi pager?" I told him I wasnt aware of such a device; Wi-Fi costs too much to put in such a product. Besides, 802.11bs speed is overkill for such a simple task.

I eventually recommended he investigate some Family Radio Service (FRS) radios, which can now often be found for under $20 a pair. Many models now include a vibrate notification that would get around the noise problem. Message recipients could then begin a voice conversation after they had left the church, much like leaving a theater to answer a cell phone call. Because of FRSs minimal security, theres chance, albeit small, that a device could be accidentally activated, but it is probably within acceptable risk. It would be better, though, if there were a way to send an SMS (short message service) or pager-like text message to such a device that didnt involve a monthly service fee.

There are many emerging approaches to such "local SMS," including the recently announced WozNet, which can handle light messaging; and ZigBee, as well as new extensions to FRS itself.

In early 2002, the TechTV show Fresh Gear showed a GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) device called the ATT703 that would have been perfect for this application. With a thumb-board, two stubby antennae, and three-line LCD, the bulbous blue device looked like a Fisher-Price version of the smaller RIM Blackberry. However, it never materialized.

Wi-Fi Lite would certainly solve my friends problem and could turn something like Kensingtons Wi-Fi Finder into an affordable, intelligent information appliance. Even simple home music streaming products would also function well at a fraction of 802.11bs speed. In fact, at least one vendor is currently working on such a product that uses Bluetooth.

Bluetooth, along with Zigbee and WozNet may be fighting it out for which low-speed technology ultimately allows devices to achieve months of battery life, but they require new chipsets and new infrastructure.

Imagine if you had to have two Ethernet ports on your computer—one for "low-speed" Ethernet that connected to a different kind of cabling and could communicate only with other devices that supported the standard. Remember also that Ulta Wideband will soon offer a challenge for the high end of speed throughput. Thats a lot of redundancy to have to build into a device, consumer or otherwise.

Wi-Fi may not be ubiquitous, but its clearly the most prominent wireless LAN technology in the U.S. Wi-Fi engineers would do well to expand the utility of the standard by making it more viable for inexpensive devices.

Are you ready to accept other wireless networks or would you hold out for Wi-Fi Lite? E-mail me.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

More from Ross Rubin: