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Microsoft plays a wireless combo

Instead of putting its support behind newer wireless network standard 802.11a, it is advocating that products use that standard together with the older one, known as 802.11b.

Microsoft said Monday that it isn't among those to fully back new wireless wunderkind 802.11a.

The software giant hasn't issued an important Windows system certification for any modems that use just 802.11a, a new generation of wireless network, Microsoft said Monday. Wireless networks using 802.11a operate up to five times as fast as networks based on an older standard, 802.11b. There are between 15 million and 30 million 802.11b networks in homes and offices worldwide.

In avoiding the newer standard, Microsoft has repeated the same concern that has dogged the equipment based on 802.11a ever since the standard was approved in 1999: The 802.11a standard isn't compatible with 802.11b networks, which means an 802.11a modem card will not work with any wireless networks using 802.11b.

To ensure compatibility with the older wireless networks, Microsoft is instead granting certification to equipment that uses both the 802.11a and 802.11b standards on one device, according to Microsoft. Such "dual mode" modems and access points are beginning to settle into the United States market after nearly two years in development.

"The future for Wi-Fi is dual-mode or multi-mode," said Aaron Vance, a wireless analyst with Synergy Research. "Microsoft is probably doing the smart thing by laying off because it's not that far down the road that we'll see dual mode."

The certification is from the Windows Hardware Quality Labs (WHQL) and represents a Microsoft guarantee that the equipment can be used on any personal computer with a Microsoft Windows operating system.

A Microsoft statement released Monday indicates the company isn't about to budge in its stance, and has instead been working "closely with industry standards organizations and industry partners on this dual-band requirement to go into effect more broadly."

Nearly every major manufacturer of wireless LAN modem cards intends to start selling these combination cards. Some companies, like Cisco Systems, have already made them available. Proxim, Cisco and Agere Systems are among those that have made standalone 802.11a products.

The lone product
But in a curious twist, Microsoft has granted approval to an 802.11a alone product. In November, the company gave its nod to a chipset from Atheros Communications. Atheros and Intersil are the two major chipmakers for 802.11 products.

But since that time, the software giant hasn't issued a similar approval on any other 802.11a products, a Microsoft representative said Monday.

The representative didn't comment when asked why the company has given its sanction to one 802.11a card.

Allan Nogee, a wireless industry analyst with research and consulting firm In-Stat MDR, said "it looks like that one slipped through the cracks." An Atheros representative was not immediately available for comment.

"Atheros is the only one to get a certification," Nogee said. "Microsoft realized that it was a glitch. It didn't want to approve ones that aren't backward compatible."

Wireless LANs (local area networks) using the 802.11 standards let anyone with a laptop, PDA (personal digital assistant) and a modem get wireless Internet access from up to 300 feet away.

The 802.11b version runs on three channels in the unregulated 2.4GHz spectrum, which is also used by cordless phones, microwave ovens and many Bluetooth products. Bluetooth is a wireless technology that uses radio waves to send data between devices.

Because the information is transmitted through the air, a person can "capture" the information as it travels. The low cost of the equipment has helped cause an explosion in use in both homes and offices, analysts say.

The 802.11a strain is an approved standard that broadcasts a more powerful signal, running on at least eight channels in the 5GHz spectrum. It also transfers data up to five times faster than 802.11b.