Wireless vendors accused of going too fast with latest mobile protocol

Certain network gear vendors are staking a claim to the first-mover advantage with 802.11g (“11g”) wireless devices, but one industry observer wonders if the manufacturers’ race for pole position will leave users in the dust.

11g is the latest protocol for wireless local area networks (WLANs). Proponents say the technology represents the best of its forebears. It pumps data at 54Mbps – the same speed as 802.11a (“11a”). But it offers the longer reach of 802.11b (“11b”) and, unlike 11a, it’s compatible with 11b.

Linksys Group Inc. is among the first to offer 11g products. This network equipment manufacturer from Irvine, Calif. plans to market in January 11g routers, wireless access points and network interface cards. According to Mike Wagner, Linksys’ spokesman, 11g represents “a really compelling value equation for the customer” that brings “four-and-a-half times the speed” of 11b for just 10 per cent more in price.

“We are actually marketing this as a technology called ’54g,’ which is compatible with the draft 802.11g specification,” Wagner said, indicating that Linksys’s 11g products (branded “Wireless-G”) come before the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) final 11g specification.

That Linksys means to offer 11g devices based on draft specs and not the IEEE’s final word on the protocol worries Brian Grimm, spokesman for the Wi-Fi Alliance, which tests wireless equipment for interoperability. He points out that users could discover compatibility problems between pre- and post-standard equipment. If Linksys’s 11g devices don’t play nice with post-standard network elements, users might find themselves disconnected in an increasingly plugged-in world.

“[Vendors will] say they comply with 802.11g,” Grimm said from his Wilmington, N.C. office. “But just because you say it, doesn’t mean that’s the case.”

Grimm is concerned as well because pre-standard 11g equipment has not undergone the Wi-Fi Alliance’s interoperability testing, which is important, he said.

“What happens if [customers] buy an IBM laptop with a particular vendor’s card built in and they go down to the local public access location, which has another vendor’s product?” If the PC card built into the computer fails to work well with the public access point, the user might not be able to establish a connection. “That’s the issue,” Grimm said.

In his estimation, Linksys’s equipment outpaces the checks and balances designed to ensure solid-state service. Did the vendor perhaps move too fast on 11g?

No way, said Wagner. In his opinion, Linksys’s quick time-to-market is more prescient than precocious.

“We strongly believe that when the ratification from the full committee comes, expected in March or April, the worst case scenario is [pre-standard equipment] would require a driver or firmware upgrade,” Wagner said. “Basically, we think we have it nailed.”

As for interoperability testing, he said Linksys joined the 54g Interoperability Alliance, a collection of companies building wireless devices on Broadcom Corp.’s chipset. The group completed its own interoperability tests to make sure Linksys’s pre-standard 11g equipment worked well with other variations on a Broadcom theme, Wagner said.

He pointed Network World Canada to a Web site, www.54g.org, for more information, but by press time it offered little insight into the group, its members or the technology. Many pages promised details would be “coming soon.”

Warren Chaisatien, an analyst with IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, said it’s unlikely that Linksys and other first-movers on 11g would offer products incompatible with post-standard equipment.

“When a vendor makes a particular product available…they test and evaluate it rather thoroughly,” he said. “The risk of it not working with products post-approval should be minimal.”

Still, some WLAN operators are not willing to take the chance. Francois Robitaille, manager, network infrastructure at McGill University in Montreal, said he’d wait for the ratified standard, as well as critical mass among vendors, before embarking the 11g bandwagon.

“We need both the standard and availability. We have to see a real future and stability for new technology before implementing anything.”

Burkhard Kraas, network operations supervisor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said he’s concerned about 11g’s performance.

“There’s the issue with the frequency, which is the same [as 11b – 2.4GHz], so you don’t know when it’s saturated. You don’t have as many channels as you’d have at 5GHz [where 11a operates]….There are more problems than just the standard.”

Linksys is not the only member of the pre-standard club. Netgear Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif. also plans to market 11g equipment in the first quarter of 2003. Like Linksys, Netgear will offer PC cards, a wireless access point and a router based on the 11g draft specification.

“We’ve been talking with a number of chip makers and our conclusion is the draft standard is far enough along that if any changes were to occur, they would mostlikely be at the software level,” said Doug Hagan, a senior manager with Netgear. “There won’t be any changes at the hardware level.”

Netgear plans to market its 11g wares in the first quarter of 2003, but Hagan said the company has not yet settled on a chipset manufacturer. He said Netgear’s products would be priced somewhere north of its current 11b devices, but south of the dual-band 11a-11b radios.

Hagan figures enterprise users would eschew the new technology in the near term, at least until gear makers come out with dual- or tri-band radios incorporating 11g in combination with 11b or 11a.

Linksys expects its Wireless-G PC card to ring in at US$80. The access point should cost US$140 and the router US$150. For more information, consult the company’s Web site, www.linksys.com.