Wireless: Will Wi-Fi Rule?

Manufacturers of wireless products are not designing them to be interoperable, resulting in several different wireless standards. We take a look at these standards and pass along some tips to help you choose the right WLAN product for your business.

The primary wireless standard, known as Wireless Ethernet, is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) 802.11b standard on the 2.4-GHz frequency. But because the effort to make all wireless technologies interoperable is still in its infancy, other manufacturers of wireless products, such as Bluetooth and HomeRF, continue to promote their own standards over the competition’s.

We’ll discuss the different WLAN standards and offer some tips on what to consider when choosing a WLAN product for your business.

Look for the Wi-Fi label
Last year, 80 industry leaders, including 3Com and Cisco Systems, backed interoperability for products using the 802.11b standard. To help users identify products that offer interoperability within the IEEE 802.11b standard, a nonprofit trade group called the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA) was formed to test and label compatible products. Companies that support the standard pay a $20,000 fee for WECA membership and assume the expense of product testing, which runs an average of $15,000.

Products that meet WECA’s criteria can display the “wireless fidelity” or Wi-Fi seal on their product packaging. To earn the seal, a product must undergo two to four days of rigorous testing at Agilent’s Silicon Valley Networking Lab, Inc. (Testing standards can be found at http://www.wi-fi.org/interoperability.asp.)

To date, there are more than 79 certified Wi-Fi products from more than 30 different companies, such as 3Com, Actionec Electronics, Askey, Cisco Systems, Nokia, Intel, and Compaq. (For a complete list of all the currently available certified Wi-Fi products, go to http://www.wi-fi.org/certified_products.asp.) Products that have qualified for this seal include PCI, USB, and PCMCIA interface cards, WLAN access points, and other related components.

David Cohen, WECA vice chairman, said the proliferation of certified products represents an ambitious rollout of a certification plan. The initial goal was to have 20 products certified by the end of 2000, he said.

“Wi-Fi certification has become a market requirement for companies who want to compete in the global wireless LAN space,” said Cohen.

Advantages to Wi-Fi
Jim Geier, industry consultant with Wireless-Nets Consulting Services in Yellow Springs, OH, believes Wi-Fi will win out across the board for home and enterprise use because of its current acceptance in business. “Wi-Fi fits into what most businesses already have because it is an IEEE standard,” he said. “There’s a level of trust that comes with that.”

Geier, author of the Wireless Networking Handbook, added that Wi-Fi products also promise to deliver higher data speeds in the very near future, which adds to their appeal. He also said that implementing Wi-Fi for home use would be less expensive than the other standards because product sales volume overall will continue to drive the current prices down.

Bluetooth and HomeRF wireless standards
The other wireless standards on the 2.4-GHz frequency, such as Home RF and Bluetooth, are receiving more attention at the moment for home network use than business use.

HomeRF operates on the Shared Wireless Access Protocol (SWAP), has a range of approximately 150 feet, and can network up to 10 PCs. Its primary use is to provide data networking and dial tones between devices such as cordless phones, PCs, and a broadband cable or DSL modem. Bluetooth, on the other hand, uses bridging technology to connect all wireless devices within a short range to different wired and wireless networks that provide Internet connectivity.

Tips to help you select a WLAN product
WECA suggests considering the following when choosing a WLAN product:

  • Setup considerations—How easy is it to set up access points that allow for maximum coverage?
  • Management simplicity—Does this technology work with Web browser interfaces?
  • Range and throughput—How is the data transmitted?
  • Mobility—Can the technology properly track users as they roam?
  • Power-saving protocol—How does this technology maximize battery life?
  • Security—What kind of encryption and authentication does this technology use?

Dawn Marie Yankeelov is founder of ASPEctx, a consulting firm based in Louisville, KY, that offers an ASP knowledge base, competitive intelligence research, and traditional marketing services for technology firms and Fortune 1000 companies. She can be reached at dawny@aspectx.com.