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FCC, tech group tackle wireless speed

The Federal Communications Commission and a technology standards group are working to speed wireless Internet connections in homes and businesses.

The Federal Communications Commission and a technology standards group are working to speed wireless Internet connections in homes and businesses.

The FCC last week said it is considering whether to allow faster wireless networking kits, technology that allows people with laptops to roam around their homes and businesses and still surf the Web.

The proposal would allow tech companies, such as Apple Computer, Cisco Systems, Dell Computer, Intel and Agere Systems, to speed their products that use the 802.11b, or the Wi-Fi, wireless standard. The networking kits wirelessly link laptops and computers, so people can share the same Internet connection and peripherals such as printers. The faster rates will improve the quality of streaming audio and video and provides the extra bandwidth needed for the swapping of big files.

Because of concerns of interference in the airwaves, the FCC previously had a regulation that resulted in a data transfer rate that was limited to 11 megabits per second (mbps). But technology advances in the last two decades allow the FCC to speed up the data transfer rates without causing extra interference.

The FCC is now seeking public comment before making a final decision, probably later this year. If the FCC approves the speed boost, it will pave the way for a technology standards group, called the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, to make the Wi-Fi standard faster. The standards group, which oversees wireless standards, is currently considering a proposal to speed the Wi-Fi standard to 54 megabits per second (mbps), nearly five-times faster than existing Wi-Fi technology.

Analysts say increasing the speed of Wi-Fi will allow tech companies to capture more sales in the emerging wireless market by giving its existing Wi-Fi customers new technology to upgrade to. The faster Wi-Fi standard, which, if approved by the IEEE, would be dubbed 802.11g and would be compatible with the existing, slower Wi-Fi products.

The wireless networking market is expected to explode in the coming years. Sales of wireless networking kits in businesses reached $1.2 billion in revenue last year and is expected to grow to $4.6 billion by 2005, according to market research firm Cahners In-Stat Group.

"Anyone that has been making products since 1999 or early 2000 wants to extend the life of Wi-Fi," said Cahners analyst Gemma Paulo. "It's still a small market, but they have a pretty good installed base of customers. People are using them in business environments, so the (tech) companies don't want to abandon the Wi-Fi standard."

But if the FCC and the IEEE approve the speed increase, the faster Wi-Fi standard will match the speed of another wireless standard called 802.11a, where products are expected by early next year.

The difference between the two is that Wi-Fi resides in the crowded 2.4GHz frequency, the same portion of the airwaves that microwave ovens and some cordless phones operate. The 802.11a standard operates in the uncrowded 5GHz frequency, where interference is less of a problem.

Both standards, however, are not compatible. A consortium of technology companies, called the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, expects products supporting the faster Wi-Fi standard and 802.11a will be released at about the same time during the second quarter of next year. Most tech companies, such as Cisco and Intel, support Wi-Fi in their products and also plan support for 802.11a.

While tech companies say the multiple standards can coexist, analysts warn that multiple wireless standards could confuse consumers and businesses, which could lead people to buy products that don't work together.

Wireless executives say the two standards have different positives and negatives.

Initially, the faster Wi-Fi products are expected to cost less than the 802.11a products. But because the Wi-Fi products operate in the clogged 2.4GHz range, there's more potential for interference, said Dennis Eaton, a marketing manager for chipmaker Intersil and a spokesman for the consortium of technology companies. For example, a person may not be able to Web surf over a wireless network if they're using the microwave oven or using a cordless phone at the same time.

Like the number of roads on a highway, 802.11a offers 12 channels to ship data from one point to another, while Wi-Fi only offers three channels, Eaton added.

Eaton said the IEEE standards group and the FCC are working hand-in-hand in their efforts. The IEEE standards group this week considered two proposals to speed Wi-Fi: one by chipmaker Texas Instruments that reached 22 mbps and one by chipmaker Intersil that reached 54 mbps.

The IEEE ruled out Texas Instruments' proposal this week, favoring Intersil's instead. The IEEE will vote in the coming months to approve Intersil's proposal as the new faster Wi-Fi standard.

In related news, the FCC also proposed a rule change that ensures that Wi-Fi is compatible with another wireless standard called Bluetooth, a much-hyped wireless technology that links cell phones, pagers, personal digital assistants and computers to one another and to the Net. Bluetooth, which is meant as a replacement for cables and wires between devices, currently interferes with Wi-Fi products in the 2.4GHz frequency.