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Rocky road to wireless networking nirvana

Incompatibility between 802.11b and 802.11a standards

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The migration to faster wireless networking technology, due to reach widespread availability in the middle of next year, is likely to be fraught with more difficulties than vendors would have us believe.

That's the conclusion we take away from a debate on the move from 802.11b to 802.11a wireless LAN standards, which promises speeds of up to 54Mbps, at the NetEvents networking symposium in Portugal last weekend.

Although 5GHz 802.11a wireless access points from the likes of Intel will come with the ability to slot in cards for either 802.11a or 802.11b operation, companies and domestic users will find their 802.11b NIC cards can't talk to 802.11a access points. Regulatory approval for 802.11a is yet to be granted in Europe, and there's a question mark over what benefits the 54Mbps available with 802.11a (compared to 11Mbps 802.11b) offers. After all many wireless networks exist only to share much slower speed broadband connections.

David Krebs, an analyst at Venture Development Corporation, said 802.11b offered interoperability among home users and corporates for affordable wireless networking that other standards like HiperLAN/2, couldn't deliver.

The move to 802.11a could be a "short-term Achilles' heel for the industry" which is yet to fully realise the potential of 802.11b, said Krebs, who added he was yet to hear any convincing migration strategies from many vendors.

David Bradshaw, head of WLAN product marketing for Intel in Europe, said that 802.11b is available now, and ramping quickly. He admitted that interoperability with 802.11a was an issue, but said the industry was positioning itself to deal with the transition.

"We will see two things: one will be companies coming to market with access points that have dual card capability, to support both 802.11a and 802.11b," said Bradshaw. "The other is that, further out, we will also see silicon with multiple radios on it, so 802.11b, 802.11a, and even GPRS."

Staying with 802.11b may not be an attractive option because of possible interference in the 2.4GHz band with Bluetooth devices, and because it works over just three bands - potentially troublesome if your neighbours put in WLANs.

However 802.11a (which operates over eight channels) is not without its problems because it works over a shorter range and can be blocked by walls.

This is troublesome for domestic users but a blessing in disguise for corporates because it might impair access for drive-by hackers, who've enjoyed ready access to poorly secured wireless LANs. Although its well established that WLANs can be secured by plugging access points into VPNs this is a custom more honoured in the breach than its observance.

A report by analysts Dell'Oro group indicated security as a barrier to the uptake of wireless networking among corporates, with IEEE standards that address concerns over WEP encryption not due until March or April next year. Intel told us that many other vendors are advocating the use of a Radius solution to authenticate keys on a network, which it said would tie into a proprietary solution.

Shelley Julien, Vice President marketing at Netmotion Wireless, said the industry does not have a complete solution for the security problem and asking users to buy a third-party product is a "big objection" and barrier to deployment. ®

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