Pick A Standard: Wireless Standards Proliferate

Wireless gear using the family of 802.11 standards still rules. But new flavors are beginning to push out Wi-Fi in favor of WiMax and variations that support roaming and connections at faster speeds.
Wireless technology has advanced quickly in recent years, but the best is yet to come. Unfortunately, it takes a scorecard to keep the various standards straight.

At the moment, wireless gear using the family of 802.11 standards still rules. But new flavors are beginning to push out Wi-Fi, the popular wireless service available in a growing number of hotels, coffee shops, and city parks. The 802.11g standard, approved last June, is commonly supported in hardware already on the market. It works in the same 2.4-GHz band as Wi-Fi (802.11b) but offers speeds of up to 54 Mbps, compared with Wi-Fi's 11 Mbps.

Other 802.11 standards are still in development. In January, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers revealed 802.11n, a standard that will reach speeds of up to 100 Mbps, offer better security, and operate over longer distances. The standard should be approved by the end of 2005.

WiMax, short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, is the name for the 802.16 family of wireless services, an emerging standard that, for now, is being aimed at carriers for use in metropolitan area networks. It offers tremendous range--up to 30 miles--and speeds of up to 70 Mbps.

WiMax has its own variations. Basic 802.16 systems communicate on frequencies between 10 GHz and 66 GHz. The 802.16a flavor, approved in January 2003, uses frequencies between 2 Ghz and 11 GHz. The IEEE is reviewing 802.16d, a combination of the 16 and 16a standards and, this summer, will probably approve 16e, a roaming-friendly version of 16d. Laptops equipped with a 16e chip could directly connect to a WiMax antenna and roam across a city.

Vendors are concentrating on 16d. Equipment makers such as Alcatel and Intel are building chipsets to support it. They're expected to start shipping before year's end.

Looming on the horizon is 802.20, another roaming-friendly standard that would let users keep a connection going even if they're traveling as fast as 150 mph. Development of this standard is slow, and it has less vendor support. Products supporting the standard probably won't ship until well after 802.16e.

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