Apple: There's no "a" in Wi-Fi

The Mac maker joins a growing band of companies giving the cold shoulder to 802.11a, marking another setback to its bid to replace 802.11b.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
3 min read
Apple Computer joined a growing band of companies giving the cold shoulder to 802.11a, marking another setback for the wireless standard designed to replace 802.11b as the dominant way to create home and office wireless networks.

The Mac maker has no plans to make wireless networking equipment using the 802.11a standard, Greg Joswiak, Apple's vice president of worldwide hardware product marketing, said Wednesday. Instead, it plans to add 802.11g technology into the next generation of its laptops, he said.

"802.11a makes no sense--no sense at all," Joswiak said. "There's no conceivable (802.11)a market."

Equipment using the 802.11a standard creates a wireless zone about 300 feet in radius in which people can download files at 55mbps. That's five times faster than 802.11b Wi-Fi networks, of which there are an estimated 35 million now installed around the globe. But there's one catch: The two types of network--802.11a and b--aren't compatible.

Because of this, 802.11a forces current Wi-Fi users to abandon their networks and buy new access points and laptop modems for all involved--an expense that grows depending on the size of a household or business, Joswiak said. By contrast, to switch to the rival 802.11g standard, all that's needed is a new wireless access point, which costs from $150 to $200.

A growth in use of 802.11a technology would also create a problem in deciding how to cater to the millions of devices already using the 802.11b standard, raising the question of whether to build two different networks, Joswiak said.

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Instead of moving to 802.11a from 802.11b Wi-Fi, many manufacturers are producing gear that uses the 802.11g, analysts say. An 802.11g network is as fast as an 802.11a, and it can be used by anyone with an 802.11b modem in a laptop or personal digital assistant.

Microsoft seems to agree with Apple in principle on the 802.11a question, though the Redmond, Wash.-based wireless networking newcomer is taking a somewhat less draconian approach, in that it isn't shunning the standard altogether.

However, the software giant hasn't issued an important certification for its Windows operating system to any modems that use just 802.11a. To ensure compatibility with 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 the company.

Such "dual-mode" wireless modems and access points are beginning to settle into the United States market after nearly two years in development.

Some manufacturers are continuing to put out 802.11a-only products, just in case. Cisco Systems, Proxim and Agere have all unveiled wireless products using only 802.11a. Company representatives wouldn't comment on sales of these products, since the equipment was introduced recently, in mid-2002. However, the same manufacturers are also creating combination 802.11a and 802.11b Wi-Fi equipment.

802.11a wireless has hit an insurmountable roadblock, said Will Strauss, an analyst at market research firm Forward Concepts. Strauss said the market has spoken already: Fewer than 100,000 of the tens of millions of Wi-Fi chips shipped in 2002 were for 802.11a modems or access points.

"There's little need for 802.11a," Strauss said.