Cisco unveils 'future-proof' wireless gear

update The networking giant says it will offer new products to be used in wireless local area networks as it looks to capitalize on a market that's expected to boom in the near future.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
3 min read
update Cisco Systems unveiled new wireless equipment on Wednesday that can be upgraded when new standards for the popular technology become available.

Wireless local area networks, or LANs, let anyone with a laptop and a modem get wireless Internet access from up to 300 feet away.

Although wireless LANs operate through the 802.11 standard, there is an alphabet soup of versions of 802.11 that have varying levels of security or speed. For example, the wildly popular Wi-Fi networks operate on 802.11b, but 802.11a and 802.11g have been developed to be more secure or to travel on more channels.

This work-in-progress situation has made companies and some customers hesitant to buy wireless LAN equipment because new standards are being developed and the companies don't want to be locked into using equipment that works only on one, older standard.

Cisco's new gear aims to tackle that problem. The company said Wednesday that its new equipment will accommodate all wireless LAN hardware and software standards and protect customers' investments by allowing upgrades without having to abandon existing technology.

"That's the key thing for our customers," said Larry Birenbaum, vice president in charge of Cisco's wireless business. "They know that this is a very volatile technology. They want to put it in and be confident that it won't go stale on them."

Cisco joins the ranks of other Wi-Fi gear makers like Agere Systems and Enterasys Networks, which both sell similar "future-proof" Wi-Fi equipment.

"We feel that we are on time to the 802.11a market, which is just now beginning," said Birenbaum.

Nearly all Wi-Fi networks worldwide use a standard known as 802.11b. It runs on three channels in the unregulated 2.4GHZ spectrum, which is also used by cordless phones, microwave ovens and many Bluetooth products. But it is not considered to be as secure or as fast as some of the more recent standards.

For example, 802.11a is an approved standard that broadcasts a more powerful signal, running on 12 channels in 5GHZ spectrum, and transfers data up to five times faster than 802.11b. There are only a very limited number of 802.11a networks, even though the 802.11a chipsets have been sold for nearly a year. While it is faster, it has not been backward compatible to 802.11b.

Another Wi-Fi standard known as 802.11g, which is more secure than 802.11b and has the speed of 802.11a, is in the works as well, but has yet to be approved by the appropriate standards bodies.

Cisco makes and sells most of the 802.11b networking equipment, but has balked at offering 802.11a equipment until now, according to Gemma Paulo, a wireless analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group. But the equipment will likely get a good reception with Cisco customers, even though there are other products available, she said.

"Everyone has been looking for a real business player to jump into this market," she said.

Cisco's Aironet 1200, introduced Wednesday, is a wireless access point, one of several pieces of equipment needed for a Wi-Fi network. The new access point is faster, has more memory and can be upgraded more easily than the previous product, the Aironet 350 Series Access Point box. Cisco has been offering such products for about 18 months.

The Aironet 1200 comes equipped to set up an 802.11b network, but it is built in a way to add radios for both the 802.11a and 802.11g standards. Those radios are sold separately, and if installed, the wireless access point will be able to operate all three networks at once. But it does not break down the barrier keeping 802.11a and 802.11b networks from interacting with each other.

The new equipment comes with a price tag most consumers aren't used to, however. A $1,000 version comes equipped with a way to create a Wi-Fi network using 802.11b installed. It also has a slot to plug in the necessary equipment for creating a wireless network based on 802.11a. A $1,500 version comes with both types already installed.

Most consumers are used to paying under $500 to install an entire Wi-Fi network. The Cisco equipment will likely be a bigger hit with businesses that can spend that kind of cash, analysts believe.

"It's definitely not for the meek," said Gartner Group wireless analyst Ken Dulaney.

Reuters contributed to this report.