Wi-Fi with a European Accent

Wi-Fi, the 802.11b 11Mbps wireless networking technology so popular in the United States, has definitely jumped the ‘pond’ to the United Kingdom and other European nations. Yet the faster, more muscular 802.11a standard is just now recovering from jet lag as vendors attempt selling wireless products to wary European regulators.

One of the most successful companies at completing the European regulatory obstacle course is wireless networking equipment maker Proxim Corporation of Sunnyvale, California.

Proxim recently received the first approval from the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) for shipping equipment based on the 54Mbps 802.11a standard. The approval enables the company to sell high-speed WLAN products in nine European countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Norway and Portugal.

Europe’s FCC

It took Proxim more than six months to receive certification of its Skyline and Harmony 802.11a products because of strict guidelines set by the ETSI, the European equivalent of the U.S. Federal Communication Commission.

Proxim’s Amy Martin called obtaining ETSI authorization and country-by-country permission “the biggest obstacle” to the company’s European introduction of 802.11a products.

Unlike in the U.S., where the 5GHz radio spectrum is open for a variety of uses, Europe has always held that chunk of real estate primarily for military and security use.

NATO Weighs In

When European networking giants Siemens, Philips Electronics and Ericsson began talking of introducing 5GHz gear, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) took notice and objected, fearing the new wireless technology would interfere with military satellites and radar broadcasts using the same spectrum.

Europe’s first response was HiperLan2, a standard the ETSI created allowing WLANs to use the 5GHz spectrum. HiperLan2, however, went over like a lead balloon. Five years after the new standard’s introduction, not a single HiperLan2-based device has seen the light of day, according to Proxim.

Avoiding Interference

In order to make 802.11a more palatable to concerned European bandwidth users, the ETSI added a few more hoops high-speed WLAN equipment manufacturers needed to jump through.

First, the European regulatory body dropped any requirement that WLAN equipment needed to follow the HiperLan2 blueprint. Also added was a rule stating that future 5GHz gear needed to avoid radar, satellite and other sensitive broadcasts. This required vendors to adopt Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS), a feature not required in the States. DFS checks for the presence of protected communications equipment and prevents interference.

Proxim’s Martin said the new provision was another reason for the delays in getting approval to sell wireless networking equipment in Europe.

Also, the European standards group put 802.11a equipment on a tight wireless ‘leash.’ Makers of 802.11a equipment hoping to sell their products in Europe must employ Transmit Power Control (TPC). TPC turns down the ‘volume’ of an 802.11a radio based on how close a laptop computer is to an access point. Without TPC, 802.11a radios broadcast their signals full blast, much like two people yelling at each other, even when standing just feet apart.

Both DFS and TPC are expected to become part of the chipsets used in 802.11a gear destined for Europe.

Along with Proxim, Intel has also entered the 802.11a fray. The chip maker recently introduced 802.11a equipment in Britain, France, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands.

However, if high-speed wireless networking is to expand beyond the enterprise, and offer global roaming between 802.11a and 802.11b hot spots, gear such as the multi-standard devices from Microsoft and Agere Systems may be needed.

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