Vendors jump gun on standard with fast WLAN in Europe

Vendors are rushing 54Mbps wireless LAN (WLAN) products to the European market without waiting for the U.S. 802.11a standard to be adapted to meet European regulatory requirements. The European products offer less functionality and might not work with future devices that do support the forthcoming standard.

Intel Corp. and Proxim Corp. plan to start selling 802.11a products in various European countries in the next few weeks. Both companies made changes to the products they sell in the U.S. and successfully approached national regulators in Europe to get product approval. However, these products will likely need to be upgraded when a Europewide standard is ratified.

Products based on the 802.11a standard operate in the 5.15GHz to 5.35GHz frequency band and provide a maximum data throughput of 54Mbps. This is several times the 11Mbps throughput of the more established 802.11b system, which operates in the 2.4GHz band.

Intel narrowed the frequency range in which its European 802.11a products operate to 5.15GHz to 5.25GHz. That won approval, but as a result a user can only put four access points in a room instead of eight – although vendors have touted the eight channels offered by 802.11a as a clear advantage over the three offered by 802.11b. An auditorium would be better served with 802.11a, for example.

“The narrowing of the band is a business decision,” said Dinesh Ramdin, technical marketing engineer for Intel of Santa Clara, Calif. “By limiting the frequency bands you cut the number of non-overlapping channels down to four, but the throughput stays the same,” said Ramdin, noting that transmission speed is a major selling point for 802.11a.

Intel will offer its products in the U.K., the Netherlands, and other countries it is keeping secret for now.

Intel has also implemented Transmit Power Control (TPC), which limits the transceiver from emitting more radio signal than needed, and which is required by European regulators. Later versions of the products will also support Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS), which lets a device listen to what is happening in the airspace before picking a channel.

Proxim products for some countries will work on the same narrower frequency band as Intel’s, but in other countries it will take advantage of the full spectrum available, the company said. Proxim gained approval by adding TPC and DFS to its products.

“The European rules ask for implementation of TPC and DFS. Proxim has implemented that in the 802.11a products and nine countries have given us approval,” said Lynn Lucas, director of marketing and business development at Proxim in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Proxim said it will start selling 802.11a products this month in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Norway and Portugal. Most of the rest of Europe is expected to follow by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, IEEE standards working group 802.11h is discussing enhancements to the 802.11a standard which will meet European regulatory requirements, including TPC and DFS. The group should be done late this year or early next year, according to vendors.

Intel and Proxim have both expressed support for the forthcoming standard but, while Intel is promising that the software in 802.11a products it is putting on sale in Europe now will be upgradeable to meet the 802.11h standard later, Proxim is more cautious: “You really can’t do that until the standard is ratified,” Lucas said.

Other vendors, including Cisco Systems Inc. and Agere Systems Inc., are waiting for the standards work to be completed and issues with European regulators to be ironed out before releasing 54Mbps products in Europe.

The Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA) plans to offer an interoperability certification for 802.11a equipment this year and 802.11a gear with 802.11h enhancements next year under the Wi-Fi5 mark, as it has done for 802.11b devices with its Wi-Fi mark.

“Vendors want to bring products to the market as quick as they can to have the competitive advantage. But if the products are not Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi5 certified, then interoperability is at risk,” said WECA spokesperson Brian Grimm.

Intel and Proxim have shown an interest in obtaining Wi-Fi5 certification for their products. Both are WECA members.

Despite manufacturers’ eagerness to sell the faster WLAN products, Lars Godell, an analyst with Forrester Research BV in Amsterdam, said Europeans looking at WLAN should forget about 802.11a for now and opt for 802.11b.

“We don’t see any reason for users to jump on the 802.11a bandwagon until the dust has settled. There is no need to buy any products before they are certified and I would not bet my business on ‘most likely’ upgradeable,” he said. “802.11b is a mature technology that has been around for a few years. It makes sense to go for the low cost 802.11b product.”