Intel ramps up 802.11a wares

In an attempt to atone for past tardiness, Intel Corp. last month introduced wireless networking equipment that uses the 802.11a protocol. The company claims to be the first with such a suite, known as the Pro/Wireless 5000 LAN series.

A successor to the 802.11b wireless protocol, 802.11a promises quicker connections and less interference from other devices than its forebear can. The 802.11a protocol communicates at 5GHz, as opposed to 802.11b’s 2.4GHz, and offers transmission speeds up to 54Mbps, versus 802.11b’s 11Mbps. It operates at the same frequency as the Bluetooth wireless protocol as well as many cordless phones and even microwave ovens.

The Intel suite includes network interface cards and a wireless access point.

Stephen Saltzman, Intel’s senior director of wireless LAN products, acknowledged Intel’s previous mistakes with networking products. The company was behind the curve with Ethernet connectivity and late to the game when 802.11b became the rage. Intel wouldn’t make the same mistake with 802.11a, he said.

Thanks to improved modulation techniques, 802.11a lets eight overlapping channels occupy one space; 802.11b allows just three.

But 802.11a is not entirely improved over 802.11b, notes Sarah Kim, an analyst with The Yankee Group in Boston. For one thing, at 5GHz, 802.11a can’t travel as far as 802.11b.

Saltzman said Intel employed “better math to compensate for worse physics,” so the 802.11a signal takes a long time to degrade. After all, it starts much higher, at 54Mbps, than the 802.11b signal does. And it degrades slower, so by a certain distance the 802.11a user might very well have a faster connection than an 802.11b user.

Although Saltzman said current 802.11b users want the speed and reliability 802.11a affords, Kim was skeptical.

Most of Intel’s potential customers operate in vertical markets, she said, and “many of the vertical markets…don’t really care about speed,” she said. “The typical vertical market, if it’s (doing) information capture, data capture, that sort of stuff, doesn’t really need to be done half a minute faster.”

And if it’s speed they want, potential customers might consider waiting a year for 802.11g, which operates at 2.4GHz and offers 54Mbps. It’s more in line with the current installed base of 802.11b products, but it offers the same speed as 802.11a.

But Eric Lau, for one, prefers Intel’s own solution to backward compatibility. Lau is director of technical services in the IT department at Unisource Canada Inc., a paper distribution firm. He installed Intel 802.11b access points in a number of Unisource’s offices and warehouses across Canada.

Lau is encouraged by Intel’s plans to add a second radio to its latest access points, so they will be able to take both 802.11b and 802.11a communication. Lau figures that’s the way to go.

“I am also looking at, not migrating to 802.11a, but for our new locations, just putting 802.11a in instead of 802.11b, because I’m aware of the fact that the product is backward compatible if you put two radios in it,” he said. He added, however, that Unisource hasn’t yet tested the dual-mode system.

For the moment, Intel’s latest comes with just the 802.11a radio. “When [the dual radio system] is shipped, I’ll get some equipment so I can test out the new model,” said Lau.

He added that he’s had no trouble with interference on the 802.11b networks at Unisource. Still, he likes the idea of the speed offered by 802.11a.

“I think the question of whether to go to 802.11a or not is a decision of whether you want to stay current with the technology, or stay with the current standard. In my view, if it’s dual (802.11b and 802.11a), it doesn’t matter. And the pricing, that the ‘a’ is coming out not that much more (expensive) than ‘b’, why not have faster connectivity?”

Although prices have yet to be finalized, Intel said customers should expect access points to cost approximately $700 and card bus adapters to cost $210.