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3Com opening wireless gambit next week

3Com will ship its first wireless networking products next week, getting started in a market the company sees as vital to its long-term health.

3Com will ship its first wireless networking products next week, getting started in a market the company sees as vital to its long-term health.

Dubbed AirConnect, the technology will allow large companies, schools and medical offices to build wireless networks so that laptop users can roam around their offices and stay connected to the Internet and corporate networks. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company plans to build wireless networking kits for small businesses and homes in the second half of this year, according to executives.

"We're going after the mobile professional," said John Drewry, product director for 3Com's wireless division. "As more people use laptops, a lot of them spend more time away from their desks, like conference rooms and cafeterias, and they need to stay connected to the Web and their email."

With the launch, 3Com will become the latest networking firm to jump into the wireless market, joining such established players as Lucent Technologies and Proxim as well as newer entries like Cisco Systems, Cabletron Systems and others.

3Com, which created its wireless division last spring, is counting on the new technology to help revitalize a company that has struggled financially in recent times. For the past year, 3Com has targeted wireless and other new markets, such as Internet telephony and high-speed modems, as profits from its analog modems and network adapter cards have slowed.

AirConnect comes with notebook PC cards that have radio transmitters and receivers built-in. The technology also requires a wireless hub, affixed to a ceiling or wall, that connects the wireless technology to the regular wired network. The wireless network can run at 11 megabits per second (mbps).

3Com and its wireless competitors envision a future in which users of handheld devices can wirelessly connect to the Internet everywhere--in homes, offices, airports and even hotels. Analyst firm Cahners In-Stat Group predicts the market will grow from $750 million in revenue in 1999 to $2.2 billion in 2004 as prices for the wireless products drop and companies rally around a common standard.

Cahners In-Stat analyst Mike Wolf said 3Com has the potential to become a major player because many businesses already own 3Com equipment in their networks.

"3Com has the sales channel," he said. "If you look at the network adapter card market, approximately 50 percent are 3Com's. If people move to wireless solutions, 3Com can leverage that success."

3Com said a wireless hub, which will support 63 users, will cost $1,195 each. Wireless PC cards will cost $219 each. The company is also selling a starter pack, consisting of one hub and three PC cards, for $1,795.