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3Com Switches Market Gears

3Com is gearing up for a headlong dive into the wireless market with its new wireless switch-based product line that it plans to roll out in the next few months. The new goods will allow customers to support Voice over Wireless LAN based on the capabilities built into its wireless switches.

Once a darling of the dot-com era, the network equipment maker has had difficulty capitalizing on the wireless craze in the same way that rivals Cisco Systems and Lucent have. But plucky 3Com has been preparing for its production of wireless LAN switches, including certifying hotspot gateway equipment with six major vendors earlier this month.

3Com's new plan involves combining wired and wireless networking with voice and security; interoperability with third-party wired and wireless products; and centralizing management, security and voice applications, virtual LAN and Power over Ethernet (PoE) technology.

We're making our move into the switch market to let us extend our current enterprise line," Brent Nixon, director of product management for 3Com said. "This gives our customers solutions they really want, and will let us continue in segments of the market that are growing the fastest."

3com is hoping to target a variety of verticals including healthcare and education and even the public access market in hotels and airports with the new product line.

"When you get [a deployment of] more than 10 access points, the cost of management comes into play," Nixon said. "Security and applications like voice are also major factors that 3com feels Trapeze can handle while still remaining standards based, which Nixon says is important to 3Com customers."

The next phase of 3Com's wireless strategy consists of collaborating with Pleasanton, Calif.-based Trapeze to tap into its Mobility System, which consists of Mobility Exchange (WLAN switches), Mobility Point (access points) and RingMaster software tool suite. In future phases of the relationship, the two companies will work on putting more wireless capabilities into 3Com's wired products.

Eventually the two companies hope to go beyond just an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) relationship and develop a tighter integration of existing 3com products -- wired and wireless -- with the Trapeze technology.

Trapeze's switch works usually with "thinAPs" called Mobility Points, also resold by Trapeze. 3com wouldn't confirm that it will sell a version of the Mobility Point, or exactly how the product lines will work together. Ahmet Tuncay, vice president of Business Development at Trapeze says that his company's products have strong support for third party access points, and that's "it's possible -- practical, in fact -- for Trapeze to take installed access points on the network, and by downloading new code, we can turn it into a Trapeze AP."

Tuncay says the Trapeze brand remains valuable to the company and they plan to continue selling products for the foreseeable future, they won't be turning exclusively into a technology provider to OEMs.

"Enterprise wireless LAN systems need to integrate with the wired network in order to keep operational costs low," said Abner Germanow, IDC enterprise networking research manager.

While 3Com's entry into the wireless switch space may have been slow, it is striking while the iron is hot. The WLAN marketplace is growing at a breakneck pace, according to market research analysts with Dell'Oro Group. The firm's five-year forecast for WLAN sales predicts that enterprise access point shipments will increase by 75 percent in 2004, signifying a dramatic change in enterprise willingness to implement wireless. The analysts predict overall wireless LAN products will grow 20 percent during the same period to $2.1 billion.

As part of its growth plans, 3Com said it will offer an enterprise wireless switch controller that will work in conjunction with its PoE product, the SuperStack 3 Switch 4400PWR, as well as a scaled-down version for small enterprise and small-to medium-business customers. Also, since the intelligence that once resided only on the access points is now being off-loaded to the wireless switch, 3Com plans to offer new lower-cost access points.

3Com said it has an advantage with its services because it deals with large and small customers. The company said it will offer new professional services to support the future wireless switch products. They will include planning, installation, integration and maintenance to help customers maximize their investment in new-generation wireless equipment.

Editor's note: Wi-Fi Planet and Internet.com editor Eric Griffith contributed to this report.