Faster wireless technologies are in the air

Faster wireless technologies are in the air

WiFi leads Bluetooth in product numbers; interference is an issue because they use the same frequency


Feeling disconnected? A wave of wireless connectivity products might soon cut the cord linking users to LAN servers while still giving them Ethernet-speed access.

Wireless technologies are starting to dominate trade shows, and much of the activity centers on WiFi and Bluetooth technologies.

Bluetooth'the name a confederation of suppliers has given to 2.4-GHz wireless connectivity'has gotten the most publicity, but so far there's still more promise than product.

Jerry Purdy, chief executive officer of Mobile Insights Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., said recently that Bluetooth won't be widely adopted until late this year.

54 WiFi products

Wireless fidelity, or WiFi, is the interoperability certification granted by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, a vendor group pushing for adoption of products based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' 802.11b wireless LAN standard. The 68 member companies submit their products for independent testing.

By the end of last year, 54 products from 24 vendors had been certified under a program begun last March, said Angela Champness, a product business director at the Orinoco unit of Lucent Technologies Inc. of Murray Hill, N.J.

Bluetooth automatically sets up so-called personal-area networks, theoretically replacing the need for cables to connect printers, input devices, cameras and other peripherals within 30 feet or less of a PC.

Eventually, Bluetooth might also connect peripherals to one another'phones to cameras for transmission of pictures, for example'and eliminate dongle devices for authorized users.
The technology is also seen as a successor to infrared.

Bluetooth has a smaller operating radius than 802.11b networking's 300 feet, but it uses the same frequency as WiFi equipment. That could lead to mutual interference, even though Bluetooth and wireless LANs have different data transmission techniques.

Another roadblock to Bluetooth adoption is that few peripherals are yet available.

Close range

According to 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., notebook PCs can operate Bluetooth simultaneously with 802.11b PC Cards without reducing their maximum close-range speed of 11 Mbps.

3Com's Bluetooth card and a Universal Serial Bus adapter will both be available by midyear, a company spokesman said.

IBM Corp. has a $189 card that works with a Bluetooth version of the XyLoc PC security device from Ensure Technologies Inc. of Ann Arbor, Mich. The XyLoc radio-frequency badge, coupled with PC software, locks the machine when a badge-wearing user moves more than a few feet away and unlocks it when the user returns.

Logitec Inc. of Fremont, Calif., has demonstrated a prototype Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, but a company spokesman said there were no immediate plans to produce them.

On the WiFi front, Lucent makes a tiny 802.11b circuit board that many PC vendors, including Dell Computer Corp. and IBM, are incorporating into the PCI slots of new notebooks.

Other notebook makers are reserving motherboard space for combination modem-Ethernet adapters, and using the mini-PCI slot for 802.11b cards. Most of the wireless-ready notebooks have antennae built into the cover so there's no protrusion to break off.

Proxim Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., makes a $2,195 Stratum MP multipoint bridge for 11-Mpbs, line-of-sight data transmission for up to 12 miles in the unlicensed 2.4-GHz frequency. The company's Harmony AP controller manages several wireless access points at once.

Besides 802.11b devices, it also controls 10-Mbps wideband frequency-hopping and 1.6-Mbps OpenAir devices, marketing director Lynn Chroust said.

Is 802.11b tough enough?

Engineers at NetGear Inc., also of Santa Clara, aren't convinced that the 802.11b standard is robust enough for all applications. NetGear wireless adapter cards and access points, dubbed 11X and designed for small offices, switch channels on the fly and do forward error correction, both extensions of the standard.

Vivek Pathela, NetGear's director of product management and marketing, said such features reduce the need for administrator intervention and boost speeds through walls. He said these features will be part of the forthcoming 802.11e update of the IEEE standard.

Champness, who is a member of the WiFi alliance's board of directors, said Federal Communications Commission approval of a new frequency modulation scheme for 2.4-GHz transmission could nearly double 802.11b bandwidth to 20 Mbps. Farther out on the horizon is an 802.11a standard for 5-GHz transmission. Champness said the alliance is preparing the certification process for 802.11a products, but none is expected before 2002.

In tests, higher-frequency wireless products have reached 54 Mbps, she said.

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