Commentary: Wireless standard position a boost

The IEEE's tentative approval of the 802.11g standard is a definite lift for wireless networking--and a step toward higher wireless Internet speeds.

By Todd Kort, Gartner Analyst

The IEEE's tentative approval of the 802.11g standard is a definite boost for wireless networking and a step toward higher wireless Internet speeds. But the industry fight over wireless data transfer standards is far from over.

See news story:
Wireless group tentatively OKs speed boost
In the past year, 802.11b has gained considerable ground in its attempt to become the primary standard for wireless LANs. However, many industry decision-makers are looking toward a next-generation standard that will provide better throughput, greater security and less interference, with the leading contenders 802.11g and the Intel-backed 802.11a.

The 802.11g standard's primary benefit is lower cost combined with an increase in speed to 54 Mbps from 802.11b's 11 Mbps. However, it continues to use the 2.4 GHz band used by 802.11b, which is increasingly congested and vulnerable to interference from microwave ovens, brush motors and Bluetooth devices. The 802.11a standard also delivers 54 Mbps, but moves to the far-less-congested 5GHz band.

These seemingly obscure technical issues have serious consequences for enterprises offering wireless LANs, because each standard uses different frequencies and different modulation schemes. This means that if an enterprise installs an 11b network and later adds 11a access points--for example, to support a streaming video application--11b users could not access the 11a network.

After months of infighting, the IEEE 802.11 Task Group G has proposed a compromise solution for the standard that allows 802.11g users to choose between Intersil's Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) and Texas Instruments' Packet Binary Convolution Coding (PBCC) modulations.

It is very difficult to find common ground between the multicarrier OFDM and the single-carrier PBCC, because the two proposals are so different. This "compromise" only confuses the issue. The existence of two encodings means that devices can be released with chipsets that are compatible up to the 802.11b speed. Nonetheless, because of the all-too-familiar "not-invented-here" syndrome, neither Intersil nor TI is likely to support both encodings.

The result may be a market opportunity for other chip manufacturers, because the IEEE requires cross-licensing agreements for any patents that are considered as part of its specifications. This could enable a third-party manufacturer to license both patents and create adaptive chipsets.

Adaptive chipsets are already in development for the 802.11a standard. Manufacturers like Envara are now working on chipsets that will support the installed base of 802.11b devices--as well as the forthcoming 802.11a devices. For this reason--and because of both higher speeds and the backing of industry giant Intel--Gartner believes 802.11a is the standard that is most likely to become the high-data-rate wireless LAN standard in 2003.

(For related commentary on Gartner's assessment of 802.11b security problems,

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