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Analysts see bright future for 802.11a

Analysts at last week's 802.11 Planet event said that 802.11a isn't going anywhere. Despite the emergence of other wireless standards, enterprises will need 802.11a's increased bandwidth for wireless applications.

BOSTON -- Even though it has been overshadowed by other wireless standards, analysts participating in a panel discussion at last week's 802.11 Planet Conference & Expo said that 802.11a still has value for the enterprise.

The specification for transferring data over wireless local area networks is part of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE's) family of wireless LAN standards, which also includes 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, and the recently approved 802.11g.

Tim Scannell, panel moderator and founder of Quincy, Mass.-based consultancy Shoreline Research, asked the panel whether 802.11a has become an "albatross," now that 802.11b is so popular in the enterprise and 802.11g offers the same 54 Mbps data transfer speed as 802.11a.

Craig Mathias, principal with the Farpoint Group, an analysis firm in Ashland, Mass., said that 802.11b caught on over 802.11a because its use of the 2.4 GHz range is perceived to be more desirable. The 2.4 GHz frequency propagates better, but 802.11a operates in the 5 GHz range, where there is more usable bandwidth.

"[802.11]a is probably the most valuable of the [wireless] standards developed so far," Mathias said. "'A' is the future."

He said that's especially true now that the cost of access points is coming down. That means that, even though 802.11a signals can't travel as far on their own as 802.11b, companies can easily afford to purchase extra access points to take advantage of 802.11a's abundant bandwidth.

That's important, said panelist Sarah Kim, a senior analyst with the Boston-based Yankee Group, now that the development of more wireless-ready applications is driving the need for more bandwidth.

"Early on, the entire concept of wireless was so foreign, you didn't have the applications to drive the technology usage," Kim said.

Kim said that the results of a recent Yankee Group poll of companies with wireless LANs found that one-third of them were using 802.11a in some form.

Panelist Julie Ask, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research, in Darien, Conn., predicted that, within two years, most vendors will offer devices that support both 802.11a and 802.11g.

Yet Scannell suggested that, until then, it may not be worthwhile for an enterprise to invest in wireless LANs because the technology is evolving so rapidly, especially now that the IEEE is already beginning work on its next wireless specification, 802.11n, which is expected to transmit data at a rate of 100 Mbps.

"If you can get a payback today, you should absolutely be making the investment today," said Mathias, adding that 802.11a is already a mature technology and that vendors are not about to abandon support for a technology that is so widely used.

Daniel Knafo, a conference attendee and senior vice president with Cypress Communications Inc., in Miramar, Fla., which provides broadband services to small and medium-sized businesses located in large commercial office buildings, said his company is currently trying to figure out which wireless technology would best suit its customers.

Knafo said he believes that wireless phone carriers -- not networking companies -- will eventually dominate the wireless data market. Despite facing bandwidth challenges, he said, their existing global networks and their customer relationships will give them an edge.


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