by Ben Worthen

Ideas 2003: Wi-Fi: Not As Easy As It Sounds

Jan 01, 20033 mins

While Wi-Fi is a branded certification for wireless LANs and wireless LAN products, it’s also a catchy shorthand that’s become synonymous with the products it certifies. And it’s a lot easier than saying IEEE 802.11b, the technical term for conventional wireless LANs. But no matter what you call it, everything is coming up roses for Wi-Fi.

The Wi-Fi market doubled in 2002 and should grow another 60 percent in 2003, according to Gartner. Hospitals use Wi-Fi so that doctors can have bedside access to patient records. Warehouses use it for real-time inventory checks. Colleges and universities use it so that students can access the Web while sunning themselves on the quad. In other words, Wi-Fi is here and Wi-Fi is there. And soon it will be everywhere. The number of wireless hot spots (high-speed wireless Internet access points in such places as coffee shops and airports) will almost triple in 2003, exploding from 3,400 worldwide to nearly 10,000.

That means more access for more people, which, bizarrely, might be the one thing that slows Wi-Fi’s march toward its manifest destiny. The protocol that dominates the market?802.11b?uses the 2.4GHz spectrum. It’s a busy spectrum, full of baby monitors, cordless phones and microwave ovens, and the more traffic builds, the greater the chance for interference and drops in speed. Today, service is good and speeds are pretty fast. An 802.11b user can get connection rates of up to 11Mbps from up to three different information sources at a time, for maximum throughput availability of 33Mbps, before interference becomes a problem. In contrast, 802.11a, a competing wireless LAN standard that operates in the 5GHz spectrum, allows for speeds of up to 54Mbps from up to eight different access points at a time, giving it a greater range and max speeds up to 13 times faster. An even newer standard, 802.11g, works in the 802.11b spectrum, but delivers the speed and range of 802.11a.

Here’s an analogy: 802.11b is VHS; 802.11a is BETA. BETA was a better product, but VHS had the market share. Luckily, the end game for wireless LANs won’t be anything like it was for VCRs, thanks to 802.11g. Since G uses the same spectrum as B, the products are compatible. That means that CIOs can go right on investing in B technology and, when the time is right, use the same infrastructure and equipment to reap the greater speeds of G.

The bottom line, says Meta Group senior research analyst Chris Kozup, is that 2003 will see a “convergence of all of these [standards] into a single product. It will simply be that you buy a wireless LAN product and it can support any of them. Ultimately it takes the guesswork away from the user.”