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Device maker gives Wi-Fi more zoom

U.S. Robotics says its newest Wi-Fi products will be nearly twice as fast as comparable equipment, and a new technique from TI will help send more information through the airwaves.

Device maker U.S. Robotics said Tuesday that its newest Wi-Fi products will be nearly twice as fast as comparable equipment.

The new U.S. Robotics products create a wireless network that shuttles files or Internet access from one device to the next around 22MB per second. The equipment is compatible with the 30 million Wi-Fi, or 802.11b, networks in homes and offices, which have a maximum speed of about 11mbps.

To boost the speed, U.S. Robotics added a stronger radio, a central element to any 802.11 system. It also is using a new technique to send more information through the airwaves. The technique, from Texas Instruments, is called packet binary convolutional code, or PBCC.

But PBCC might not be approved by the standards bodies that equipment makers rely on to make sure their gear works with everyone else's.

Brian Grimm, a spokesman for Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), said the organization currently has no plans to certify PBCC-based devices. PBCC is an optional method to use under the standards that WECA uses for 802.11 equipment, he said. Typically, WECA only certifies the mandatory elements of the specifications.

That hasn't stopped vendors, however, from planning to sell the equipment, according to a U.S. Robotics representative. The access point will sell in June for a suggested price of $200, and the wireless PC card needed will cost about $100.

Even if the PBCC isn't approved by WECA, the products using the method will still work with existing 802.11b networks, according to the company. But owners might have to upgrade if the current 802.11b standards change.

The main benefit to the new gear is a faster speed. But 802.11 actually has a very short leash when it comes to beaming Internet access through the air.

It's "bound by the pipe," said Larry Birenbaum, vice president in charge of Cisco Systems' wireless business.

The "pipe" refers to the type of Internet access that a home or office has. That can range from a dial-up modem slogging at 56K to a digital subscriber line, or DSL.

The 802.11 equipment plugs directly into this pipe of Internet access and uses a radio to shower it over an area about 300 feet long. A laptop, PDA (personal digital assistant), or even some higher-end phones equipped with the right kind of modem can log onto the network.

And it can move stuff at very fast speeds. Cisco's new 802.11a radio creates a wireless network capable of blasting Internet access at 24MB per second. The slowest of the 802.11 networks have the capacity to send information at a still rather hasty 1.6mbps.

But these same devices haven't come up with some kind of technological alchemy to speed up Internet access. A 56K Internet connection still stays maddeningly slow over these supposedly magic airwaves.

"The limitation will be on the bandwidth," Birenbaum said.

It will be awhile before an 802.11 network's ability to shuttle Internet access without wires will be put to full use. Companies like Iospan Wireless and others sell equipment that wirelessly beams Internet access that reaches speeds of at least 5mbps. VDSL, the next generation of DSL services, has speeds of up to 12.5mbps.

HDTV (high-definition television) makers are also interested in the newer versions of 802.11a because it has the required speeds to make it possible to ferry the signal through the air, Birenbaum said.