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Linksys sends corporate WLAN standard home

Punts 802.11a kit at gamers, multi-room music streamers

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Linksys yesterday unveiled a set of consumer-oriented wireless networking products that bring the once 'enterprise only' 802.11a WLAN spec. into the home.

The line-up includes a broadband router and add-in adaptor cards for notebook and desktop machines. There's also a USB dongle adaptor. All the products support not only 802.11a but also the b and g versions of the WLAN standard.

The move is an obvious escalation in the Wi-Fi arms race, as vendors struggle to differentiate their products as component prices fall. The irony here is that 802.11a, which offers the same theoretical maximum throughout as 802.11g - 54Mbps - but on the less noisy 5GHz band of the spectrum - 802.11b and g use the microwave-infused 2.4GHz band - was not so long ago largely written off as a mainstream technology.

The original higher-speed alternative to 802.11b, take-up of a was hindered by its lack of backwards compatibility. Arriving later, 802.11g offered the same performance as a plus that desired ability to work with older kit. No surprise, then, that g emerged as b's successor, and was promoted by vendors to consumers keen to upgrade from b.

802.11a, meanwhile, found some support among performance-sensitive corporates, since with its higher raw throughput, and less interference-prone frequency band with room for more channels, it made more sense than g. Yes, the effective range is lower, but that proved less of an issue for dense site installations.

Linksys is naturally promoting its Wireless A+G line as the next upgrade up from 802.11g. Convincing consumers may prove more tricky, given the identical theoretical raw data rates a and g offer. But there is a benefit to savvier users who may be suffering downgraded network performance because their own WLAN is surrounded by other homes' networks. 802.11a may provide them with a way of lifting their own wireless network's head above the crowd.

The Cisco subsidiary is also pitching 802.11a at bandwidth-hungry WLAN users who do more with their networks than share a broadband Internet connection: multi-player gaming and media streaming, for example. Indeed, the move comes as the guardian of Wi-Fi, the Wi-Fi Alliance, begins to promote its wireless multimedia system, Wi-Fi Multimedia, derived from the 802.11e standard and geared toward improve content streaming performance.

Of course, as WLAN chip prices fall, and 802.11a, b and g tri-mode components become commonplace, more wireless network vendors are likely to follow Linksys and begin touting a in the home. At least until the 802.11n standard is settled upon, ratified and brought to market.

The four products announced yesterday - the Wireless A+G Router (WRT55AG), the Wireless A+G PC Card (WRT55AG), the Wireless A+G PCI Adaptor (WMP55AG) and the Wireless A+G USB Adaptor (WUSB55AG) will ship in the US during October, priced at $109, $89, $89 and $99, respectively. There's no word yet on UK and European availability. ®

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