CES - Wi-Fi products trickle in at CES

Wireless networking didn't quite steal the show at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), but one or two vendors were here to show new products based in the 801.11b standard, also known as Wi-Fi. Meanwhile, at least one vendor offered a glimpse at upcoming products based on the next version of the specification which promises much higher connection speeds.

As of this week 232 wireless networking products had been certified Wi-Fi compliant, and were on offer from 61 companies listed with the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), which ensures that competing Wi-Fi products will interoperate, WECA said in a statement. The 802.11b standard can transfer data at speeds of up to 11M bits-per-second (bps).

"We're seeing all kinds of devices," said WECA spokesman C. Brian Grimm. "PC Cards, access points, residential gateways, even USB (Universal Serial Bus) devices."

While few new products were launched here, Grimm said companies that gain certification for one product usually submit more. For example, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. has five products certified and is sending more through the process, he said. Other examples include Intel Corp., with about a dozen products certified.

Irvine, California-based The Linksys Group Inc. showed its upcoming Instant Wireless Ethernet Workgroup Bridge, which connects to any device that has an Ethernet port using a CAT-5 cable. Once connected to the bridge, the device can now send and receive data wirelessly through a Wi-Fi access point positioned elsewhere in the home or office, said spokeswoman Diana Ying.

The bridge will bring wireless connectivity to devices including PCs, printers, Internet appliances and even gaming consoles such as Microsoft Corp.'s XBox, Ying said. Scheduled for release early in the second quarter, the bridge will be priced at US$149.

Linksys also showed its Instant Wireless Presentation Gateway, which allows any user with a standard Wi-Fi access card send data straight to a projector, or any other VGA (Video Graphics Array) display, Ying said. That should eliminate the need for users to individually connect their laptop computer to a display when they want to give a presentation at a meeting. Users are assigned a designated "hot-key" combination, such as Control-A, which they enter when it's their turn to present. The WPG11 will be released in the second quarter, priced at $299, Ying said.

Actiontec Electronics Inc. launched its Wireless-Ready DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) Gateway, which connects to the Internet using DSL at up to 8M bps and allows data to be shared among PCs over both a Wi-Fi network and a 10/100M bps network, the company said. The gateway also comes with a basic firewall for security. The product was made available to manufacturers Friday, although it wasn't clear yet who would offer the product.

One company trying to stay ahead of the game was D-Link Systems Inc., which showed a PC card adapter and access point based on the next version of Wi-Fi, dubbed 802.11a. (Confusingly, 802.11a is the successor to 802.11b, despite what the name suggests). WECA won't start certifying 802.11a products until June or July, but vendors were eager to show their new wares nonetheless.

There are pros and cons to 802.11a, D-Link sales engineer Thomas O'Neill said. The big plus is that the newer standard will offer a far greater data transfer speed. 802.11b operates at a frequency of 2.5GHz and has a bandwidth of 11M bps, while 802.11a will operate at around 5GHz and operates at almost five times that speed, at up to 54M bps, O'Neill said.

The higher frequency should mean the newer standard incurs less interference from devices such as cordless phones, which also operate at 2.5GHz range. However, higher frequencies tend not to travel as far and have trouble passing through solid objects, like walls.

There is also an issue of distance. 802.11b can connect devices up to 300 feet away indoors, and 900 feet outdoors, D-Link's O'Neill said. However, 802.11a is expected to reach only about half that distance, O'Neill said.

"Using 802.11a will probably be more for (indoor) use, while 802.11b can be used to connect different buildings," he said.

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