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4/28/2006
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Wireless-N Could Stand For 'Not Interoperable'

Hardware companies are racing to bring out wireless LAN equipment with far higher speeds and capacity. But consumers and businesses should be cautious: As the standard they're based on isn't yet official, early products may not be interoperable and could have performance problems.

Hardware companies are racing to bring out wireless local area network equipment with far higher speed and capacity. But consumers and businesses should be cautious: As the standard they're based on isn't yet official, early products may not be interoperable and could have performance problems.

Cisco Systems' Linksys division last week rolled out the first of its Wireless-N products using the 802.11n draft specification. Aimed mostly at consumers, Linksys says its WRT300N broadband router offers up to four times the range and 12 times the throughput of its Wireless-G router based on the 802.11g standard. That kind of throughput could better handle bandwidth-hungry apps like high-definition video and voice over IP. Linksys plans to offer Wireless-N products based on the draft spec this summer for businesses with five to 100 users.

Wireless-N uses several radios to transmit two streams of data simultaneously over multiple channels, increasing the capacity of the network. The Wireless-N broadband router is priced at $150, and the notebook adapter goes for $120 at BestBuy.com.

The trade-off for the bandwidth and range is there's no assurance Linksys' first offerings will work with other 802.11n products. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers agreed on a proposal for the standard in January, but the Wi-Fi Alliance, the group responsible for certifying equipment based on the standard, hasn't developed an interoperability testing program. The IEEE is expected to ratify 802.11n in about a year. Linksys won't guarantee its early Wireless-N products can be upgraded to support the final standard.

The race to market is cause for concern, says Craig Mathias, an analyst with the Farpoint Group. "There's no such thing as 802.11n today, and there's a great issue with calling something draft-compliant," Mathias says.

Cisco Isn't Alone

What You Get With Wireless-N

>> Surf Web, listen to music, watch video, and make Internet phone calls--the usual stuff, only faster

>> Broader range and higher throughput than Wireless-G router at an affordable price

>> No promises that it will interoperate with other vendors' products or those based on the final standard
Belkin, Buffalo Technology, D-Link, and Netgear also offer routers they're calling "draft N compliant" or "pre-802.11n." Last month, the Farpoint Group tested Buffalo's and Netgear's routers and found they couldn't communicate with each other. That's not all. "These products don't perform as well as some products that have been out here for a while," Mathias says. The Farpoint Group concluded the early equipment was rushed to market to "capitalize on 802.11n draft hysteria" but could be improved through firmware and software up- grades over the next few months.

Still, even large businesses should keep an eye on early 802.11n products. Some of the world's most advanced technologies increasingly are sold first to the consumer mass market--where huge amounts of money can be made--before vendors turn their attention to the narrower business market. Linksys parent Cisco says business products based on 802.11n will likely come once the standard is certified.

The key benefit of 802.11n is its support for MIMO, short for Multiple Input Multiple Output, which refers to using multiple transmitters and antennas on wireless devices to boost performance. MIMO would let companies not only increase capacity, but get more users on a WLAN in relatively small area. MIMO-based gear isn't available for corporate WLANs, but it's expected to hit the market soon, Mathias says.

Traveling nurses at Opportunity Partners, an organization serving people with disabilities, use their wireless laptops to access business apps from care facilities equipped with Linksys dual-band wireless access points based on the 802.11a and 802.11g standards. David Lanari, VP of IT, anticipates that access points supporting 802.11n would allow wireless transmission of training materials and video. "In our industry, as with most others, increased bandwidth and range for [WLANs] is not a luxury but a necessity," Lanari says.

The demand for faster WLANs is here. The trick is ensuring that the equipment designed to support them will work as expected.

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