Intel in November plans to ship new wireless networking products that are five times faster than current technology that lets people wirelessly link their desktop computers and laptops.
The technology, based on the new 802.11a wireless standard, is a faster successor to the popular 802.11b standard that has become popular in offices, homes, cafes, hotels and airports that have built untethered high-speed Net connections.
The new 802.11a standard, which has data-transfer rates of 54 megabits per seconds, provides enough network bandwidth to connect more computer users to the network, Intel executives said. The fivefold speed increase will also allow people to access Web sites faster and exchange bigger files with each other faster, they said.
Intel executives are targeting the new 802.11a products at small and midsized businesses that want to use cutting-edge technology, although consumers will also be allowed purchase them. The giant chipmaker joins Proxim and Enterasys Networks, two companies that also plan to release their first 802.11a products later this year.
They compete against market leaders Cisco Systems and Lucent Technologies spinoff Agere Systems, and others such as 3Com and Symbol, in the exploding market for wireless networking kits. Revenues in the market are expected to grow from $1.2 billion in 2000 to $4 billion in 2003, according to analyst firm Cahners In-Stat Group.
Analysts believe 802.11b products will remain the big seller for a few years before 802.11a becomes popular. The two wireless standards are not compatible, but the network-equipment makers are building hardware devices that will allow businesses to build wireless networks where both standards can coexist.
"We'll pretty much see all the (companies) enter the 802.11a market by the end of 2002 and see it take off in 2003," predicted Cahners analyst Gemma Paulo. "We're thinking that 802.11a will probably overtake 802.11b with the majority of sales in 2004."
Cisco, Agere and 3Com representatives said their companies are developing new wireless technology based on the faster 802.11a standard, but declined to state when they will release the products.
Intel's forthcoming 802.11a products will come in three forms: a tiny device that can be plugged into a desktop computer; wireless PC cards for laptops, and a hardware device called an "access point" that connects the computers to a high-speed Internet connection. To ease the transition to faster technology, Intel's access point will support both 802.11a and 802.11b, allowing businesses to support both wireless networking standards at the same time.
Intel, which is using 802.11a chips made by start-up Atheros Communications, is also releasing new software that allows businesses to easily manage and install the wireless networks, said Brandi Frye, marketing director for Intel's Wireless LAN operation.
Intel executives plan to market technology that uses both wireless standards, but eventually they see 802.11a as the eventual winner. Like most emerging technologies, Frye believes 802.11a products will first become popular in the corporate market before entering the home.
"We believe everyone will go with 802.11a from the home to the corporate market," she said. "But we're now primarily targeting the small and medium-sized businesses and (expect to) have the early adopters drive this adoption."
Frye said prices of 802.11a products will be comparable to 802.11b products. An 802.11a wireless PC card will cost $179, about $69 more than the older technology. The company's 802.11a access point will cost $449; the older 802.11b technology ranged from $299 to $699.
A 3Com spokesman said the 802.11a products that 3Com is developing and testing don't have the range that that 802.11b products have. Intel executives, however, say customers don't lose any performance with 802.11a.
If a laptop is 300 feet away from an 802.11b access point, the laptop can get data transfer rates of 2mbps, an Intel spokesman said. With that same distance using 802.11a products, the laptop can have between 2mbps and 12mbps, he said.
"Range is not an issue," the Intel spokesman said.
The new 802.11a standard does not address the growing concern over wireless networking security, but new technology standards are being built to address those security concerns for wireless Net connections.
Researchers have found holes in wireless networks based on 802.11b that allow hackers to intercept and alter transmissions passing through the wireless networks. Tech companies and an industry standards group are working on a stronger encryption standard for 802.11a and 802.11b that could be completed by next year, an Intel spokesman said.
Proponents of 802.11a say the newer standard is also better because it operates in the less-used 5GHz frequency, so there won't be any interference. The older technology, which has data-transfer rates of 11mbps, operates in the 2.4GHz frequency, where cordless phones, microwaves and other electronic devices operate. They can cause interference because they're using the same portion of the airwaves.