802.11g: The Next Best Thing or the Next Last Thing

Want to have an argument? Get a dozen people who care about the future of 802.11
networking and ask them about 802.1g’s prospects and watch the fur fly and the
fun begin.

On one side, you have people like Chris Preimesberger, wireless analyst for
Evans Data who observes that, "Because
the 802.11g processor uses all the same technologies as 802.11a and is backwards-compatible
with 802.11b, it is expected to become a popular component in LAN construction
among developers. Gemma Paulo, Senior Analyst for Enterprise & Residential
Communications at In-Stat/MDR agrees and adds, "We tend to
look at 802.11g, also a 2.4 GHz technology, as a kind of life extension/upgrade
to 802.11b. If 802.11g indeed shows up on the market next year, we expect that
802.11g will be the 2.4 GHz technology of choice going forward."

Allen Nogee, In-Stat/MDR’s Wireless Component Technology Senior Analyst, thinks
that if 802.11g does show up, it will be a hit. He says simply, "If you
could get higher speeds with very little price penalty, wouldn’t you go for
it?"

The key word, though, is "If." While Texas Instruments (TI) and Intersil, 802.11g’s biggest proponents and
bitter rivals are already preparing pre-standard 802.11g chip sets, the soonest
802.11g could become an official 802.11 standard would be May 2003. That alone
is enough to make some analysts dismiss 802.11g as hype.

In the meantime, Atheros Communications
is already shipping its second-generation 802.11a chips. And, Intersil has moved
into the 802.11a business with the release of their PRISM
Indigo chipset
on just this month. Will there be a market left for 802.11g
when it gets there?

Navin Sabharwal, Director of Residential & Networking Technologies for
Allied Business Intelligence, thinks
so. He believes, "g (will be a) strong interim solution regardless of when
IEEE finally approves it."

Tale of the Tech Tape

Controversy has already plagued 802.11g. To finally get 802.11g out the door,
by agreeing to disagree after years of 802.11 committee fights finally proved
that neither one could get enough committee votes to gets its own pet 22Mbps
solution official 802.11g blessing. The end result is that 802.11g is a compromise
incorporating no fewer than four different wireless standards

For 802.11b compatibility, 802.11g incorporates 802.11b’s Complementary Code
Keying (CCK) to achieve bit transfer rates of 5.5 and 11Mbps in the 2.4Ghz band.
In addition, 802.11g adopts 802.11a’s Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing
(OFDM) for 54Mbps speeds but in the 2.4Ghz range.

802.11g also comes with a pair of optional, and incompatible, modes to achieve
throughput ranges in the 22Mbps range. These are Intersil’s CCK-OFDM mode with
a maximum throughput of 33Mbps and TI’s Packet Binary Convolutional Coding (PBCC-22),
with a throughput range of 6 to 54Mbps.

Both 802.11a and 802.11g offers up to 55Mbps speeds in the lab. In the field,
802.11a delivers about 20Mbps. That may not sound like much unless you know
that 802.11b’s 11Mpbs theoretical speed is more often 4Mbps in practice. Early
versions of 11g chipsets have real-world speeds in the 6Mbps range according to vendors.

It’s also clear from early tests that 802.11g has the same, or perhaps slightly
better, range than 802.11b. On the other hand, 802.11a seems to maintain a higher
throughput out to the limit of its range, while 802.11g appears to run out of
steam at its extreme range.

Of course, 2.4GHz, with interference from everything to satellites to microwave
ovens to high-end wireless phones, has to contend with a lot of radio frequency
(RF) noise. This can result in lower throughput, which in turn can effectively
reduce its range. 802.11a’s 5Ghz, on the other hand, has much less interference
to deal with and it’s part of the spectrum appears from FCC regulations likely
to stay free of most other RF devices.

Finally, 802.11g can handle only three channels at once. The first generation
of Aethero’s chips though could handle eleven channels at once and the next
generation supports thirteen channels in the US market and nineteen in Europe.
Thus, in a business environment, with multiple users, even if components were
delivering 55Mbps speeds, 802.11a would effectively have more bandwidth in heavy
usage situations.

It’s clear that neither technology is a slam-dunk over the other. Technology
issues though are only part of the story.

It’s In the Money

Price may play an important role in whether 802.11g gets its chance to shine.
Sabharwal suspects that, "11a will become a high performance niche solution."
Rather than pick one or the other, "Most customers will wait for dual band."
In any case, "between b and g, g will eventually win out in price/performance
and will be significantly cheaper than dual-band." Thus, the consumer market
will turn to 802.11g.

Then again, maybe not. Ed Sperling, editor in chief of Electronic News knows the original
equipment manufacturers who use the wireless chips and he says that, "Most
vendors will likely support all the standards, including even Bluetooth. They
don’t care what the customer wants they’ll give them everything rather than
confuse them, the cost of chip is nothing. It doesn’t add that much to cost
of device."

That’s especially true if 802.11a and combo chips that support ‘a’ and ‘g’
on a single network interface card or access point drop in price. That does
seem to be happening. Competition between Intersil and Atheros is expected to
drop the price of 802.11a chipsets and both companies are already working on
combo chips. Atheros has already shipped a combination a, b, and experimental
g chip in the Japanese market.

Indeed, Richard Redelfs, Atheros’ CEO & President, sees 802.11a’s future
not in standalone chips but in combo chips. Agreeing with Sperling, Redelfs
says that "A/b chips just need a few more gates, and when you integrate
them, it just won’t be that much more." For end-users, a chip that can
handle any 802.11 might amount to only an "extra $10 or $15 bucks."

At the same time, all the chip vendors are working hard at putting all of an
802.11 chip set’s functionality on a single CMOS chip. Once perfected, this
too will reduce prices.

Meanwhile, TI has introduced the non-standard 802.11b+, which adds PBCC to
802.11b. The result is a chip that can work today with existing 802.11b networks
while, with the right pairing of 802.11b+ access points and NICs can deliver
22 Mbps speeds. Again, unlike 802.11g, b+ is on the market now and delivering
802.11g like performance.

This new, off-the-beaten track technology is already finding vendors willing
to deliver it. Indeed, D-Link Systems has
already released its AirPro
DWL-6000AP Dual-Band Wireless Access Point
with dual b+ and 802.11a support.
And, significantly for pure 802.11g’s deployments is that it does all this while
cutting the access point’s price tag from $499 to $249.

What all this means, other than helping to continue to confuse customers, is
that 802.11g has a hard row to hoe as a standalone standard. Will we have devices
that use 802.11g? Yes, of course. Will they dominate the wireless market in
2003 and 2004, the way 802.11b did 2001 and 2002? That is another question entirely.

802.11 Planet Conference

News Around the Web