CES - Wi-Fi maturing as other networking options emerge

Companies at CES debuting cheaper 802.11n gear, plus options for adding the faster standard without getting rid of your existing equipment.

After a rocky start, the latest flavor of wi-fi, 802.11n, should come into its own this year, with prices for new equipment coming down significantly and lots of options for sale to add 802.11n technology without getting rid of your older gear. And networks will start to move from the crowded 2.4 GHz spectrum to the 5 GHz spectrum, where there's less danger of interference.

But 802.11n and wi-fi in general won't be your only option. Equipment for powerline networking is getting more prevalent and there's even a skinny new cable for creating wired networks much more easily.

Networks built on 802.11n equipment have theoretical speeds of up to 300 mbps and real-world throughput that, under the best conditions, rivals ethernet. But there have been some significant drawbacks with the technology. It still isn't official -- n products now are based on the latest draft of the technology. Because the spec isn't final, consumers have had reasonable concerns about whether draft n equipment from different manufacturers would work together. In fact, our last roundup of wi-fi routers found significant interoperability problems. Finally, n products have been expensive -- US$150 or more for a router alone.

Problems solved?

But networking manufacturers here at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas are arguing that many of these problems are solved or will be soon. They say interoperability problems are largely a thing of the past. (We're testing wi-fi routers now and should have test results confirming or contradicting those arguments soon.) A final version of the 802.11n standard is expected to be ratified in mid-year. And prices have come down significantly for new n products.

Linksys announced the Ultra RangePlus Wireless-N Broadband Router (WRT160N) for US$99 and manufacturers like D-Link have n routers that sell, with a rebate, for as little as US$49.

Atheros, which makes the chips that power lots of wi-fi gear, has worked hard to make 802.11n equipment less expensive, according to Vice President and CTO Bill McFarland. They've gone from equipment that uses two chips and has three receiving and three transmitting antennas to equipment that all fits on one chip and uses just two receiving and two transmitting antennas. They're able to maintain the same bandwidth, while making adding 802.11n technology to a device much cheaper. "Now we're really talking about 11n for the masses," McFarland said.

Even with cheaper prices, though, few people will want to replace all their wi-fi equipment with 11n gear. So companies are coming up with ways to add 11n speeds while maintaining a network for older devices. TrendNet, for instance, announced the Wireless Easy-N-Upgrader (Model TEW-637AP), a device which plugs into an ethernet port on your existing router and creates an 802.11n access point. That way, your old router and devices can continue to operate on the older 802.11g technology, but any new devices you get can connect at 11n speeds to the new access point. TrendNet did not specify when the device will ship or what it will cost, though they said they expect it will cost 15-20 percent less than a new router.

Another take on the same idea is Netgear's HD/Gaming 5 GHz Wireless-N Networking Kit. It includes an access point that like the TrendNet product plugs into your existing router's ethernet port. There's also an adapter that you can plug into any device, like a gaming console or newer connected television, that has an ethernet port. Again, you have two networks, one running 802.11g and another faster network running 802.11n. That faster network includes Quality of Service technology that gives a priority to video and gaming traffic to prevent picture breakups and lag time. Netgear expects to ship the kit at the end of February and will charge US$199.

Clear sailing

In addition to speed, one of the attractions of going to 802.11n is that it can operate on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrum. The 2.4 GHz range is crowded with signals from cordless phones and interference from microwave ovens and has fewer non-overlapping channels. The 5 GHz range is pristine by comparison, with up to 23 channels available.

Many networking companies envision a future in which plain old data -- spreadsheets you're transfering from one PC to another or Internet file downloads -- operate on the less reliable 2.4 GHz spectrum, since it doesn't really matter if your spreadsheet takes another couple of seconds to transfer. Traffic, like streaming video, that really suffers from interference would use the 5 GHz spectrum.

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Edward N. Albro

PC World
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