New flavour of wireless LAN starts to emerge

The Comdex trade show this week in Las Vegas will give early glimpses of IEEE 802.11g wireless LAN products, which are designed to deliver as much as 54M bps (bits per second) of bandwidth using the same radio spectrum used by current 11M-bps gear.

Price, along with a longer range, are expected to give the products an edge over 802.11a gear, which also is designed for 54M bps but uses a different part of the radio spectrum. That technology hit the market late last year at prices far above those of popular 11M-bps 802.11b networks.

Vendors don't want to be last to get access points and network adapters to market, and some are willing to take a chance and come out with products before the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) finally certifies the standard. That may happen as early as March. Vendors believe the standard is nearly complete already.

At Comdex, Buffalo Technology (USA) Inc. will announce the WBR-G54, an 802.11g router for US$199, and a CardBus adapter for $99, both expected to be available in December. The company will demonstrate the products privately at the show.

Buffalo, in Austin, Texas, will replace customers' products if the standard veers far enough from its current state as to require changes in hardware, said Morikazu Sano, vice president of Buffalo. It may also be possible to make any necessary changes in new firmware that could be provided to end users, he said.

"A lot of our customers are waiting for a faster speed technology for a wireless LAN. We would like to be an early adopter of 802.11g technology even though it's prestandard, because it's backward compatible with 802.11b technology, so they can utilize their current investment," Sano said.

As long as they are sure the vendor will support them, users who buy a prestandard product shouldn't fear getting stuck with something that doesn't work after the standard is complete, said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at IDC, in Framingham, Massachusetts. (IDC is a division of International Data Group Inc., the parent company of IDG News Service.) However, they may pay a price to be the first on the block, he added.

"By the time the G standard comes out, the card might be even cheaper, so what have you actually gained in the meantime?," O'Donnell said. "They'll sell that to some people who want to get future-oriented, or some small businesses, but it's not going to be a big-business play."

D-Link Corp., another major wireless LAN vendor, will show but not demonstrate an 802.11g product in a private suite, said Bradley Morse, vice president of marketing. It expects to ship a product in the first quarter. The company is close to choosing a vendor for its 802.11g chip set, he said. A key criterion is the vendor's ability to deliver a large number of chips, because D-Link expects 802.11g to sell in high volumes through retailers soon after its release, Morse said.

SMC Networks Inc. plans to announce in January both 802.11g and combination 802.11g/a products. The company is still deciding whether to ship products before the standard is completed, which it expects to happen in March, but it expects the products to ship in volume within the first quarter.

The new products will take off first with consumers but also will catch on with enterprises, said Sean Keohane, chief executive officer. For one thing, 802.11g products will have a much smaller price premium over 802.11b -- about 25 percent to 35 percent when products first arrive, as compared with about 300 percent for 802.11a products, he said. Longer reach and a greater ability to transmit through walls also are benefits of 802.11g over the other high-speed standard.

Prestandard products carry a bigger risk with this introduction than with other new networking technologies that have come out in the past, Keohane said. Because wireless LAN gear is a hot product with plummeting prices, consumers are taking advantage of promotional deals and buying products from different vendors.

"G is going to be a long-term play, so we want to make sure we don't get off on the wrong foot," Keohane said. "If these things are not interoperable, that's my biggest concern."

Netgear Inc. plans to release products before the 802.11g standard is final, but chip set development hasn't reached the point where it can predict availability, said Patrick Lo, chairman and CEO.

"If somebody tells you a definite time, don't trust that somebody," Lo said. Netgear is considering five different chip-set vendors and hasn't yet seen parts that meet the reliability, sensitivity, throughput or range requirements of 802.11g products, he said.

"We don't know how many more iterations these chip vendors have to go through," Lo said. Netgear will privately demonstrate some prototypes at the show.

Symbol Technologies Inc., which makes most of its wireless LAN products for specialized applications such as manufacturing and retail environments, does not expect to release an 802.11g product until mid-2003. If the standard were not signed off by that time, the product might be prestandard, according to a Symbol spokesman who asked not to be named.

Symbol believes users will get more utility from a combination of 802.11b and 802.11a, because those networks don't compete for the same radio spectrum, the spokesman said.

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