Wireless LANs are ready to hit the mainstream

Wireless LANs are ready to hit the mainstream

Look for market to quadruple to more than $1 billion with arrival of new 11-Mbps standard

By J.B. Miles

Special to GCN

Wireless LANs will break into the mainstream under a new standard that promises 11-Mbps throughput and at least a degree of vendor interoperability.

The market for third-generation wireless LAN products is projected to grow from about $250 million last year to more than $1 billion by next year. Until mid-1999, wireless LAN throughput had stalled at a slow 2 Mbps, and the lack of a standard had limited use to specialized vertical markets or temporary connectivity. Even the most ardent wireless LAN supporters could build only at the fringe of mainstream enterprises.

That is changing after last summer's adoption of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' 802.11b HR, or high-rate, standard for 2.4-GHz wireless LANs.

Sponsored initially by a few industry players in the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance of San Jose, Calif., and now supported by growing numbers of manufacturers, the new standard brings more than an 11-Mbps rate and a promise of interoperability. It has spurred acquisitions of small LAN vendors by networking leaders such as Cabletron Systems Inc. of Rochester, N.H.; Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.; Compaq Computer Corp.; Nortel Networks of Simi Valley, Calif.; and 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif.

Moving fast

The acquisitions will speedily make wireless LANs feasible for enterprise adoption, according to Current Analysis Inc., a high-tech market research company in Sterling, Va.

Since their introduction in the early 1990s, wireless LANs have tantalized network architects wherever cabling was difficult or expensive to install. Their flexibility makes them attractive for merging dozens or hundreds of mobile workers onto a standard network. Security is no problem'the spread-spectrum technology built into 2.4-GHz wireless LANs ensures higher security than the wired variety can offer.

Even before the IEEE 802.11b HR standard, the costs and benefits of wireless LANs seemed favorable to users. According to a poll by the Wireless LAN Alliance of St. Simons Island, Ga., a consortium of manufacturers and users, 89 percent of users surveyed said they had installed a wireless LAN successfully, and 92 percent reported economic and business benefits.

Wireless 2.4-GHz radio frequency LAN systems covered by the 802.11b HR standard require two types of components: access points and adapters. Wireless access points are external transmitter-receivers that link directly to a wired LAN. Wireless adapters generally fit into the PC Card slots of notebook computers.

The adapters exchange radio signals with access points connected to a wired LAN, letting mobile users send data to and receive it from the wired computers.

Wireless peer-to-peer networks can link numbers of notebooks equipped with adapters. Antennas are available to improve the direction, range and quality of signals, and the software usually incorporates Simple Network Management Protocol remote management and Wired Equivalent Privacy encryption.

Market studies by Current Analysis show that the growing presence of high-profile networking companies in the wireless LAN market will have trickle-down benefits for users. For example, Cisco purchased Aironet Wireless Communications Inc. of Akron, Ohio, in November. Competition between Cisco and other industry giants in the 802.11b HR marketplace will help drive down prices for all wireless LAN products.

Cabletron recently set prices of $699 for its RoamAbout High-Rate Access Point and $199 for its RoamAbout High-Rate PC Card adapter, well below the average of $1,100 to $1,600 per 11-Mbps access point and $500 per adapter, according to Current Analysis. The prices are lower than for many 1- or 2-Mbps access points and adapters, which may bring costs down for older equipment.

The 802.11b HR standard may also help eliminate some of the conflicting claims made by manufacturers. Under the dual pressures of standardization and competition from larger vendors, small makers of noncompliant, uninteroperable systems likely will drop out of the market or stay within a specialized niche.

Some clouds will remain on the wireless LAN horizon for at least a few years, however. As new 11-Mbps systems replace 1- or 2-Mbps systems, users will demand better backward compatibility with their existing equipment. And the promise of 802.11b HR equipment interoperability is so far unproven. Test suite development is still under way by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance and others.

One final caution: Intel Corp.'s Bluetooth short-wave radio connectivity initiative, as well as some cordless-telephone and microwave oven makers, all use the 2.4-GHz band, which might cause interference with wireless LANs operating at that frequency.

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