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Experts divided on pre-standard 802.11n gear

Though the standard is far from finalized, pre-standard 802.11n gear is already on the market. One expert says it's OK to buy today's 100 Mbps gear, while another believes the risks are too great.

Just when it seemed that the wireless networking alphabet soup was starting to make sense, a new flavor -- 802.11n -- promises to spice up wireless LAN (WLAN) standards once again. Even though 802.11a, b and g are already in the bowl, one vendor is pioneering this new technology years ahead of the standards groups, despite some expert misgivings.

Airgo Networks Inc., a Palo Alto, Calif.-based chip designer and manufacturer, is leading the way to Wi-Fi's next incarnation. The company has developed a new radio technology called multiple input/multiple output (MIMO) that allows WLANs to broadcast at up to 100 Mbps over much larger areas than current standards.

Using MIMO, WLANs can transmit multiple streams of data on the same channel, thereby increasing throughput. Belkin Corp., Planex Communications Inc. and Sohoware Inc. are bringing this technology to market.

Products based on Airgo's chip sets are starting to make a dent in the consumer market, said Greg Raleigh, president and CEO of Airgo, but as is often the case with enterprises, they have been slow to embrace the new technology.

But business should start paying attention, said Craig Mathias, a principal with Framingham, Mass.-based research firm Farpoint Group.

"We are encouraging our clients to learn about MIMO," Mathais said. "And in some cases there is good justification for deployment."

A viable alternative

Running cable was prohibitively expensive for the Fairfield Inn by Marriott in North Myrtle Beach, S.C. In a hurricane prone location, the hotel was built with thick concrete walls. An 802.11g system simply would require too many access points in the four-story, 125-room hotel, said Kevin Shank, vice president of Sypherdata Inc., the Davidson, N.C.-based systems integrator that installed the WLAN.

But with a system based on Airgo's MIMO technology, Shank was able to provide coverage throughout the hotel with four access points, plus one more used for backhaul.

"We've been able to get really good coverage," Shank said.

Though Airgo's chips are working ahead of the 802.11n standard, they are backward compatible with 802.11a/b/g, an important feature in a hotel where people will often log on with an array of different clients, Shank added.

Both speed and coverage drop when a non-MIMO-enabled client logs onto the network, but Raleigh said it is still significantly better than what would be found with a standard system.

A bit too soon?

Airgo is working far head of the standards body, which currently has two proposals on the table for 802.11n. One is from a group known as WWise, which includes Airgo, as well as Broadcom Corp. and Texas Instruments Inc. Another proposal, from a group called Tgn Sync, is supported by vendors such as Atheros Communications Inc. and Agere Systems Inc.

For more information

Read our exclusive: 802.11g slowdown tackled, but does it matter?

Check out our topics on 802.11n.

 Ratification of an 802.11n standard is unlikely until at least 2006, said William Terrill, a senior analyst with the Midvale, Utah-based research firm Burton Group. Products incorporating such a standard are unlikely to appear on store shelves until 2007.

Given how far off the standard is, Terrill advises businesses to steer clear of pre-standard technology unless there is a specific application that demands the higher throughput.

"If I were an enterprise, I wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole," Terrill said.

Mathias, however, is more bullish on the technology. He encourages businesses to find out more about the technology and deploy it where it makes sense. If it needs to be replaced when standard-based products appear, it won't be the end of the world.

"By the time the standard comes out, business will be upgrading their systems anyway," he said.

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