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Wi-Fi: Spelling Europe with an "a"

The 802.11a wireless standard is gaining ground overseas, but it has seen a bumpy ride along the way to getting acceptance.

After a bumpy wireless ride, the latest Wi-Fi standard is finally picking up speed in Europe after years of politicking and development.

But it's still "a cobbled mess," according to Intel spokesman Tom Potts.

"Theoretically, if you took a card from U.S. to Europe, it would work but it may well be illegal," Potts said. "There's a good chance that if you buy our 802.11a equipment in the U.K., then take it to another country and turn it on, you might be violating the law."

At least 11 European countries are now getting their first shipments of wireless LAN (local area networking) products based on the 802.11a standard--a souped-up version of the Wi-Fi LANs that are now in 15 million homes and offices. It took two years of working with both national governments and Europe's standards bodies to open up Europe's doors.

But the equipment now hitting western European nations' stores might create a generation of tech scofflaws. Unlike the United States, European nations closely guard the use of the bandwidth where 802.11a, or Wi-Fi5, equipment must operate. As a result, some nations have crafted their own, sometimes different, rules for how 802.11a wireless networks can work, Potts said.

The ruckus is par for the rough course that 802.11a equipment has taken from when the standard was adopted in 1999 to the launch of the first products a year ago in the United States. While the equipment creates a wireless network almost five times as fast as its predecessor, Wi-Fi--also known as 802.11b--it isn't backwards compatible.

So equipment manufacturers including Microsoft and Agere Systems are planning to couple the two wireless networking standards together in combination devices.

European countries were one of the latest proving grounds for an 802.11a-only product. But so far not so good, at least for those companies that sell monthly or daily access inside wireless cafes and airports. If these so-called hot spots upgrade to 802.11a, a subscriber might not be able to roam from a hot spot in one country to a hot spot in another.

"The dream of Wi-Fi is the roaming. But that dream isn't happening in Europe," said one industry insider, who asked not to be identified.

Most companies, though, aren't giving up, saying they've battled through confusing sets of different regulations in the past and are prepared to do so now.

"While a worldwide ubiquitous standard would be much easier to work with, sometimes you just don't have that handed to you," said Tony Grewe, strategic marketing director for Agere Systems. Agere is not yet selling an 802.11a product. "To go in and (re-adjust) these things is not ideal from a volume standpoint."

Building the crazy bandwidth quilt
European countries had little problem with 802.11b, which operates in the 2.4GHz range of radio waves. Like the United States, this swath of airwaves is both free to use and free of any government regulations. Most Nordic countries, Germany, Holland and most recently the United Kingdom, already have many wireless networks in place.

802.11a works in the 5GHz range, which is unregulated in the United States. In Europe, though, for many years, operating in that range was either limited or forbidden in most nations.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization interceded when companies like Germany's Siemens, Philips Electronics and Ericsson began rumbling about making 5GHz wireless LAN equipment. NATO used parts of the spectrum for radar and satellite operated in the same areas.

After a long battle, the main European standards body European Telecommunications Standards Institute created a standard way for wireless LANs to use the 5GHz spectrum. The standard used was called HiperLan2.

But more than five years after ETSI published the standard, and major European wireless makers announced they were busy at work on product, there isn't one HiperLan2-based device, said Lynn Lucas, director of marketing for Proxim, a wireless network equipment maker.

ETSI later modified its own rules, saying the equipment doesn't have to be based on the HiperLan2 standard. It added two new requirements, though. For one, the equipment had to be able to "sense" when radar or other types of broadcasts were in the spectrum and avoid them. The technique is known as Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS), and it isn't necessary on 802.11a equipment in the United States.

ETSI also required that 802.11a-based equipment use Transmit Power Control, or TPC. This technique reduces a radio signal's power depending on how close a laptop with an 802.11a card is to the access point, a radio used to shower an area with wireless access. Usually, the Ethernet card and access point are "shouting at each other," with signals going full blast no matter how close they are together, Potts said.

"You're now seeing all chipset guys rolling these features into their chipsets, so vendors can sell 802.11a in Europe," Sabharwal said.

After meeting ETSI certification demands, 802.11a makers had to next meet the varying requirements of the government branches similar to the FCC in every European nation.

Generally, these countries are all letting 802.11a broadcast in the 5.15GHz to 5.35GHZ range and the 5.47GHz to 5.725GHz range. But a few countries carved out different areas within those two ranges to operate, or made some channels within the spectrum off-limits because they were being used for military radar or satellite transmission, sources said.

Lucas denies that situation exists, saying otherwise Proxim would not have shipped the same product to each nation.

A standard dies
Despite the reported difficulties, Intel began selling 802.11A equipment in Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden just last week. Proxim says it has been shipping equipment to 10 nations since late May.

Both companies have begun soliciting the approvals of the other European nations for 802.11a sales.

They will likely meet with resistance. While at least a dozen countries have let the new equipment into electronic shops, some countries are still hesitant to let a Wi-Fi5 maker use the needed spectrum even for trials or public demonstrations.

Proxim traveled to Spain recently to demonstrate its new equipment, but the government refused its request to use the appropriate spectrum, said Navin Sabharwal, an analyst with New York-based Allied Business Intelligence.

Once approved, though, most of the equipment will be aimed at businesses, which are the only ones that can afford the higher prices of the equipment, the companies said.

"We see it as working for the enterprise mostly," Potts said.

The shipments are also proving to be the likely end of the fledgling HiperLan2 standard.

With the Intel and Proxim gear hitting the shores, "HiperLan2 is pretty much dead," Sabharwal said.

"It's a standard that never lived," Lucas said.