The lowdown on IEEE 802.11 wireless

What is it? The IEEE 802.11 wireless standards allow PCs, handhelds and other devices to connect wirelessly to LANs and the Internet. Dominant in the market now is 802.11b, which transmits data at up to 11 Mbps on the 2.4-GHz band. Coming along are 802.11a, at 54 Mbps on the 5-GHz band, and 802.11g, which will use the 2.4-GHz band at up to 54 Mbps.

What's ahead? Systems that bridge 802.11a and 802.11b connections are of particular interest this year, as are combo cards for notebook PCs and handhelds that can access both types of systems.

What's built in? WiFi is increasingly being incorporated into handheld devices from Palm Inc., Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. and Compaq Computer Corp., as well as almost all of the new Tablet PC devices coming out under the aegis of Microsoft Corp. and its manufacturing partners. High-end Apple Computer Corp. notebook PCs also feature WiFi and Dell Computer Corp. has added it to many of its notebook PCs, though not yet to its new Axim handheld computers.

Does this mean the end for WiFi PC and PCI cards? Not necessarily, industry observers and manufacturers point out, because there's still legacy gear that needs WiFi access. But eventually, WiFi will universally be built in, much as Ethernet is today.

Must-know info? Authentication and security are hot topics. In order to enhance acceptance of WiFi in situations where security is important, the WiFi Alliance is backing the WiFi Protected Access encryption model to replace the existing Wired Equivalent Privacy standard. WPA will eventually end up in the 802.11i wireless security standard to ensure authentication between a user's device and an access point.

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