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Wireless LANs: Is more speed needed?

Products that boost the speed of wireless LANs are starting to hit the market, but experts question whether enterprises really need them.

A number of wireless LAN hardware vendors are releasing products designed to boost the speed of wireless LANs. But does anyone need them?

Recently released products from NetGear Inc. are designed to double the throughput between 802.11g access points and clients. Irvine, Calif.-based D-Link Systems Inc. is expected to announce similar speed-boosting products soon.

The products from Santa Clara, Calif.-based NetGear -- the WGT624 Wireless Firewall Router and WG511T Wireless PC Card -- work by combining two channels. So instead of moving data across a single channel at 54 Mbps, the device moves data at 108 Mbps. The real-world speed experienced by those using NetGear's products is about 55 Mbps, compared with 22 Mbps on a standard 802.11g system, said Vivek Pathela, NetGear's director of product marketing.

Additionally, with NetGear's add-ons, Pathela said, users close to the edge of the coverage area experience higher throughput, which expands the effective-use area of access points.

But do users really need that much speed? Alan Nogee, a principal analyst with the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based research firm In-Stat/MDR, said that for most businesses, the answer is no. Since the average enterprise has a T1 Internet connection that runs at about 1.5 Mbps, getting 55 Mbps of throughput to a 3 Mbps pipe is not going to make the user experience noticeably better. The bottleneck is not with the wireless LAN, but with the Internet connection.

Today, these speed-boosting technologies are not standardized. NetGear's technology works with any Wi-Fi certified access point, but it will only increase the speed of traffic to and from other NetGear devices. Enterprises generally shy away from such proprietary products, said Mike Disabato, an analyst with the Midvale, Utah-based research firm Burton Group.

Another potential problem is the way in which these systems combine channels with 802.11g. That technology works in the 2.4 GHz band, which is already crowded by cordless phones, microwaves and other devices.

Plus, NetGear's products use two of the three non-overlapping channels and eight overlapping ones available to 802.11b/g. That cuts down the system's ability to find a clear channel, an already growing problem in urban areas crowded with Wi-Fi devices.

If there is too much interference in the available channels, the NetGear products will drop down to a single channel to ensure that they can still transmit data, Pathela said.

In-Stat/MDR's Nogee said that these systems would work much better with 802.11a, which has 24 available channels.

Even with the limitations, there are some environments in which it may make sense to deploy speed-boosting products. Nogee said that small businesses may find value in them, since those companies can control their users and environments more easily than a large enterprise.

Also, he added, a company in which users often transfer large files in a confined area could find these products valuable.

They may also be useful for transferring large files to a server, because the last-mile bottleneck is not an issue, Disabato said. Still, he said, until there is a standardized way to boost speed, most businesses will be happy with the 54 Mbps that they get from their WLAN systems today.


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