Disturbing trends in wireless LANs

While early wireless LAN efforts have been hassle-free thanks to interoperability work by the Wi-Fi Alliance, some disturbing trends are emerging. Here are some examples:

— 802.11b vendors U.S. Robotics, D-Link Systems Inc. and others have recently released access points and client adapters that boost the 802.11b data rate from 11M to 22M bit/sec. While the gear is interoperable with other Wi-Fi-certified products at 11M bit/sec, none of the products work together at the higher speeds.

— Similarly, some 802.11a and 802.11g products now include proprietary “turbo modes” that boost the speeds from 54M bit/sec up to 108M bit/sec.

— Some vendors, including Cisco Systems Inc., offer proprietary security features that require access point and all adapters be purchased from the same supplier.

These changes seem innocuous enough at first glance, given that most companies use equipment from one vendor when they’re deploying wireless LANs. In certain closed situations in which proprietary technology isn’t an issue, the extra bandwidth actually can be a boon.

But the beauty of wireless is, of course, mobility. Employees who use wireless at work ultimately will want to use it at home, at the airport and at hot spots that are cropping up all over the place, and it’s likely that all that equipment will come from a range of vendors.

With proprietary enhancements creeping in, can you ensure that the cards in mobile workers’ laptops will function correctly with various hot-spot access points? And even within your corporate walls, if vendors start to drift too far from the standards, will it be hard to mix and match technology from multiple vendors as you try to buy best-of-breed technology?

The Wi-Fi Alliance has done a good job promoting 802.11b interoperability with the Wi-Fi program. It recently started an 802.11a program, and once the 802.11g standard is ratified in 2003 we expect to see another one.

Vendors that are muddying the waters with proprietary modes should work with the Wi-Fi Alliance to either come up with a cooperative standard for these faster speeds or at least spend more time educating customers about the potential interoperability issues.

If they don’t, they risk angering customers who expect their wireless equipment to work everywhere and at the speeds advertised.