Wireless LAN gear offers increase in speed

New wireless LAN products on display at this week's Comdex show will feature a quantum leap in throughput, from 11M to 54M bit/sec. Intel Corp. and Proxim Inc. will both showcase access points and PC cards that take advantage of the technology.

The new products, which operate under the IEEE 802.11a industry standard, branded as Wi-Fi5 by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), gain their speed advantage over the older 802.11b wireless LANs (Wi-Fi) by operating in a higher frequency band. Wi-Fi uses the unlicensed 2.4-GHz frequency band, while the newer Wi-Fi5 operates in the unlicensed 5-GHz band.

Wi-Fi5 gains speed at the expense of range, according to David Cohen, chairman of the San Jose-based WECA. Higher radio frequencies translate into shorter range, he said, estimating that Wi-Fi5 will cover only half the area covered by Wi-Fi wireless LANs.

But since the typical wireless LAN installation operates indoors, where coverage is measured in hundreds of feet, Cohen said, the shorter range of the new technology shouldn't make much of a difference. If it does, he said, enterprises could install more access points which Intel has priced at just under US$700 for the newer technology.

How rapidly users will move to the faster systems is open to question.

Memphis-based FedEx Corp. is in the process of installing wireless LANs throughout its hubs and terminals, and even onboard its aircraft. Ken Pasley, director of wireless development at FedEx, sees the 5-GHz band used by Wi-Fi5 as a migration path that will eventually help the company move away from the spectrum clutter he expects as more companies adopt the 2.4-GHz band.

But for now, FedEx is comfortable with Wi-Fi, Pasley said, explaining that FedEx hasn't fielded any applications that tax the 11M bit/sec. throughput, and that includes relatively high-bandwidth aircraft maintenance applications.

United Parcel Service Inc. in Atlanta, which is in the process of installing what it claims is the world's largest wireless LAN infrastructure based on Wi-Fi, "is always looking at new technologies, and 802.11a is no exception," said spokeswoman Joan Schnorbus. "The bigger bandwidth and cleaner spectrum are appealing."

But, Schnorbus said, "there is no driving need for it right now. For the foreseeable future, we are using 802.11b."

Taizoon Doctor, general manager at Intel's mobile communications division, said he believes enterprises that routinely transmit bandwidth-hungry files such as computer-aided design applications will be attracted to the higher bandwidth of Wi-Fi5 because they already operate on 100M bit/sec. wired LANs.

Amy Martin, a spokeswoman for Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Proxim, said the bandwidth offered by Wi-Fi5 is needed to handle even ordinary office applications such as PowerPoint slides, the distribution of which "can bring an ordinary wireless network to a halt."

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