IEEE Sets Next-generation 802.11 Standard

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Task Group
assigned to explore the next-generation wireless Ethernet standard has
finally ended months of bickering and late Thursday agreed on terms for a
new wireless standard called 802.11g.

The consensus represents an eleventh-hour save for the Intersil-backed
proposal. For months, Task Group “G” has been trying to come to terms on a
modulation scheme that would allow 802.11 wireless LAN (WLAN) hardware to
transmit data at speeds approaching a “wired” Ethernet. But after failing to
do so earlier this week, the IEEE even considered scrapping the proposed
standard (not to mention months of hard work) altogether.

“This is a huge win for the wireless industry for several reasons,” said
Gregory Williams, president and CEO of Intersil
Corp. “We feel that the mandatory elements of the proposed standard
meet all the needs of the market,” Williams commented. “Intersil will
leverage our proven experience in radio reference designs, software and
complete chip sets to deliver an exciting next generation of products fully
backward compatible to existing 11 Mbps radios worldwide.”

Irvine, Calif.-based Intersil, already a leading provider of chip sets
for the nascent 802.11b market, will develop and market a new chip set that
meets the proposed 802.11g standard by the second quarter of 2002.

The current 802.11b standard was approved by the IEEE in 1999. Based on
that specification, chip sets would use a modulation scheme known as
Complementary Code Keying (CCK) to transmit data signals at 11
megabits-per-second (Mbps) through an unlicensed portion of the spectrum
found at about 2.4GHz. Considered revolutionary at the time (and by some
measures…even still today), 802.11b gave way to a new generation of
products that allowed an Ethernet connection to finally break free of wires
but its speed was still only one-tenth that of its wired brethren.

In order to enhance the standard, the IEEE’s overall Working Group that
oversaw the development of 802.11 assigned individual tasks to several
specialty groups — each with the goal of further advancing the technology.
The mission of 802.11g was to boost the data transmission to the so-called
“turbo” rates of 54 Mbps while still maintaining interoperability to earlier
specs. This way, consumers (and enterprise users, vendors, investors and
just about everyone else) who bet on earlier versions of the technology
would know how the market would eventually evolve.

But when the original 802.11b specification was approved, the IEEE
concurrently approved the specs for 802.11a. These chip sets are designed to
use the OFDM schema to transmit data at 54 Mbps through a separate portion
of spectrum (located somewhere in the 5GHz range). 802.11a is currently only
licensed for usage in North America as opposed to 802.11b, which is accepted
throughout Europe and Asia as well. But the main hurdle facing the end-user
is that the two specs — 802.11b and 802.11a — were never meant to
interoperate.

Still, several vendors from start-ups like Sunnyvale, Calif.-based
Atheros Communications to household names like Intel and 3Com are already
announcing their support of 802.11a and expect to ship products about the
same time as Intersil.

Unlike 802.11a, the newly ratified standard is backwards-compatible with
the existing 802.11b standard. And that is a huge boon to the industry
considering the millions of dollars that’s already been invested networks
such as those set up by MobileStar Networks in Starbucks locations around
the country.

However, do not confuse interoperability with compatibility. A laptop
user on a .11b loop can still share files and print through a .11a-looped
desktop so long as the network hardware (namely the routers, switches, hubs)
allow for it. Just consider .11a and .11b two distinct forms of networking,
much like HomePNA or the rejuvenated powerline networking. If you have a
HomePNA (phone lines) network, you can still communicate through a wireless
network so long as you are equipped with the proper hardware. It’s
compatible…just different.

In fact, many enterprise access points (APs) are being designed and
manufactured with multiple internal slots for network administrators to
simply plug in .11a cards (or even, say, a Bluetooth module) much like they
were plugging in a PCI-Ethernet card into a desktop. SMC Networks, for
example, offers one such cardbus adapter.

Still, if 802.11a does become the dominant format used in enterprise
WLANs, then individuals that currently own Wi-Fi equipment (PCMCIA cards,
APs, etc.) are left at the mercy of the vendor, who at their whim can
include compatibility as a feature or not. If 802.11g becomes the standard,
compatibility is ensured.

Despite the recent introduction of higher-speed 802.11a products, the
outlook for 802.11b continues to be strong and we forecast that the market
will grow 35 percent in 2002, according to Dell’Oro Group.

The 802.11g standard now must go before the IEEE’s entire 802.11 Working Group, which is expected to pass the compromise specification some time next year.

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