RealTime IT News

Centrino with 802.11a: No Biggie

As Intel releases its newest Centrino chipset supporting 802.11a/b, some experts are advising their enterprise customers to wait until 2004. Why? Industry pundits believe the faster 802.11a is overkill and companies should put off buying Intel's popular wireless product until the chip-making giant ships a Centrino employing the 802.11g standard.

"Why buy 802.11a/b with only support for some of the 5GHz frequencies while within six months Intel will have a better product," says Ken Dulaney, vice president of the research firm Gartner. Dulaney is advising Gartner clients to wait until 2004 when Centrino laptops with 802.11a/b/g hit the shelves.

After being criticized for the initial Centrino chipset supporting only the 11Mbps 802.11b standard, Intel recently released an updated version of its Wi-Fi product including both 802.11b and the faster 54Mbps 802.11a to compete with other chipmakers already offering multi-mode Wi-Fi.

Dulaney believes 802.11a is overkill in most enterprise settings since the usual T1 connection is far less than 11a's 54Mbps -- even more so in homes where broadband connections are gated at less than 1Mbps.

Plus, the analyst says 802.11a "is still unstable from a worldwide regulatory standpoint."

Intel counters by labeling 802.11a Centrino as a corporate standard while the slower 802.11b is for home consumers. The thinking is that companies should buy the 802.11a/b upgrade just in case enterprises adopt the standard.

"Enterprise customers really haven't been that interested in 802.11a solutions, so the Intel a/b announcement really isn't a biggie," says Allen Nogee, analyst with the research firm In-Stat/MDR.

Julie Ask, analyst with Jupiter Research, says the ability to use current wireless technology in the future is important. In a survey of enterprises conducted in 2002, the research firm discovered "future-proof platforms" were more important than either the ability to handle either 802.11a/b or 802.11g, according to Ask.

"From what I can tell, 'a' is not that widely deployed. [But] having a/g ensures that a machine will work with all existing standards," says Ask.

Intel says the price difference between an 802.11b Centrino chipset and the new 802.11a/b product is small. However, Intel's Asia/Pacific marketing manager has reportedly pegged the price of the Centrino a/b module at $35, while the current 802.11b device is $20.

The lack of a Centrino with 802.11g hurts Intel's central Wi-Fi offering and "throws a major wrench in the Centrino branding effort," said Bob Wheeler, analyst for the Silicon Valley research firm The Linley Group.

Wheeler says 50% of Wi-Fi enabled PCs are using Intel's Centrino chipset. Wheeler says the other half of PCs with embedded wireless "are using Broadcom 802.11g or Atheros 802.11a/g."

"Enterprise customers don't have to wait for a/g, because it is available today on most Pentium M platforms," says Wheeler.

Nogee believes enterprise customers interested in 802.11a should "either get an a/b/g solution now from a vendor other than Intel, such as Atheros or Broadcom, or wait until next year when Centrino includes a/b/g support."

Intel says support for the 2.4Ghz 802.11g in Centrino computers will reach shelves in 2004. An 802.11a/b/g version will be available in the first or second quarter of 2004.

Unlike the original 802.11b Centrino, with radio parts from Philips Semiconductors and Texas Instruments, both 802.11a and 802.11g chipsets will be created by Intel.

While 802.11b is expected to be surpassed by 802.11g, analysts say consumers shouldn't be too fast to count out the original Wi-Fi standard.

"Stick with 802.11b," says Dulaney. "It's got a lotta legs for some time to come."