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Wi-Fi? Why not?

Not all the technology has reached full maturity, but it’s still worth taking the wireless plunge.

Wi-Fi may not be the biggest thing to ever hit the communications and computer industries, but in these troubled times it’ll do. It’s been a while since I’ve seen an important technology built from the ground up–driven at least in part by the demand of users. In ways reminiscent of early personal computers and the Web, families and small-business groups are adopting Wi-Fi even before the lords of IT understand it.

While many large organizations dither over Wi-Fi because of incomplete standards, security issues, uncertain control policies, and a host of implementation problems, corporate workgroups are installing rogue Wi-Fi networks. Small businesses and even individuals are creating public Wi-Fi networks as access points for the Internet. The interest in Wi-Fi home networks is particularly significant. Having been through home network installation many times, I know it’s not the easiest thing to do. Yet around 10 million households have some kind of LAN, and the numbers are growing rapidly around the attraction of Wi-Fi.

There is not much mystery in this. Wi-Fi is a wireless network that uses Ethernet protocols. Wireless spells freedom. No wires to restrict where you can use a networked computer, no wires that coil in a tangled mess. Besides, Wi-Fi is relatively cheap and easy–and it works. But there’s more to Wi-Fi than that, but not all of it is good for everybody.

Getting up to speed

While the enthusiasm for Wi-Fi has been building steadily, those who decide to take the plunge soon find out that beyond simply installing a wireless network, there are issues. The first of these is probably going to be performance. That’s usually measured by how fast data can be transferred (in millions of bits per second) and how far (in feet) it can be transmitted. It’s like marathon running: If you can, go for speed and distance.

Based on the Ethernet standard used for decades on wired networks, Wi-Fi has been adapted to link computers in a short-range wireless network. This adaptation is expressed by a series of specifications–all of which begin with the identification numbers: 802.11. If a lot of numbers with dots make your eyes glaze over, Wi-Fi specs will make them opaque. I’ll try to simplify.

802.11b is older and slower and accounts for most of the Wi-Fi in use. It has a data transfer rate that tops out at 11Mbps, though most commonly it runs around 3.5 to 5Mbps. It operates in the 2.4GHz band, the same crowded territory as most cordless phones and microwave ovens, with a range of up to 120 feet from the broadcasting base. All Wi-Fi types degrade in speed the farther you are from the source.

802.11a is faster but has a shorter range. It has a transfer rate up to 54Mbps, though effectively it’s more like 11Mbps. It operates in the less crowded 5MHz band but at a range of around 50 feet–no walls, please. 11a is relatively new and slightly more expensive than 11b.

802.11g will be as fast as 11a but has a range more like 11b. The transfer rate is up to 54Mbps but it operates in the 2.4GHz band like 11b and has a range around 110 feet. 11g won’t be an official specification until this summer, but several manufacturers are already making the equipment. Most devices support a mixed environment of 11b and 11g.

Recap: By the numbers, 11g wins. However, the specs don’t tell the whole story. Because they operate in different bands, 11b and 11a equipment cannot directly communicate. 11g can interoperate with 11b, but currently there are technical problems. Translated: Wi-Fi hardware suffers from incompatibilities, especially if you mix manufacturers. This is a problem for larger organizations that invariably have a mixed environment. It may be less of a problem for home or small business installations of a single type.

General opinion holds that 11b is not sufficiently fast to support future uses in streaming media like movies, but it is sufficient for most general use, including Internet access. For the moment 11b is the least expensive and therefore the most common form of Wi-Fi. 11a is something of an orphan (just ask Steve Jobs), although it may be useful in circumstances where it is the only specification in play. The “winner” will be 11g, since it also supports 11b and offers better performance. However, most observers say 11g won’t be ready for prime time until it becomes an official standard, the equipment becomes cheaper, and the performance more robust.

Ready or not

If 11g isn’t ready for prime time, then why is it pushed? The marketing of these systems into homes and small businesses is aggressive. Major electronics retailers are featuring bundles of 11g network gear and software at discounted prices and giving them large advertising space. Yet most of the brands involved such as Linksys, Buffalo, and D-Link are not well known. I interpret the push to mean that these companies believe the benefits and relatively low cost of 11g Wi-Fi are strong enough to create a big market.

It’s certainly not hard to understand why manufacturers are jumping onto Wi-Fi: It’s a lifeline out of an abyss of slow sales. Maybe that’s why network hardware giant Cisco recently purchased Linksys. Microsoft has even gone into this market under its own name. Intel is just releasing its new Centrino line of CPUs for portable computers that features Wi-Fi support (with an additional chipset). The gorillas are moving in. However, for Intel and Microsoft, Wi-Fi still means 802.11b.

Jumping in

Not to be content with asking rhetorical questions, I jumped into 11g for myself. Why? First, it’s because I’m a big believer in Wi-Fi. I believe that portable computers will largely replace desktop units. I also know people are happier when they can plunk the portable down anywhere and be connected, especially to the Internet. My wife is one of those peripatetic workers, as likely to be on the floor, as the couch, or at the kitchen table. She loves wireless.

I’ve already had several different wireless networks, and I never considered any of them permanent. At the moment, 802.11g is the future–for however long that lasts–and at the moment I have a choice to spend about $200 on 11b or $300 on 11g. For my money the $100 delta is a cheap down payment for delaying obsolescence.

Yes, I know that 11g is not even a finished specification. Right now manufacturers are building 11g equipment (particularly the routers) so they can be reprogrammed if the 802.11g specifications are changed before final release this summer. They also know it won’t change much. More to the point, the risk is that 11g equipment won’t yet be properly tuned and debugged.

A bill for the benefits

I won’t pick on a particular manufacturer, since this is not a product review. From what I read, though, it seems that most of the companies making 11g equipment are having some difficulties with performance, particularly in mixed-mode environments (where both 11b and 11g are used). That’s not my problem since I only have one kind of Wi-Fi, as do many small operations. What I did run into was performance-over-distance problems, with sharp drop-offs in speed when walls became involved. This, too, is not unusual, but when the advertising says 54G (11g at 54Mbps) and I’m getting maybe 5Mbps, there’s some reason for disappointment.

On the other hand, I was surprised at how easy it was to install and configure the network. Certainly it was easier than stringing cables all over the house (been there, done that). However, I had some helpful preconditions: an up-to-date OS (Windows XP Pro), background knowledge in networks, and a simple floor plan. For people who have older hardware and software, a lack of knowledge, or multilevel buildings there could be lots of complications.

Hold the horses?

The obvious advice is wait for 11g to mature. This is certainly true for businesses that already have wireless networking of some kind. It is not necessarily true for homes and businesses that have no other wireless network. Businesses also need to be more concerned about security and network maintenance. The rudimentary wired-equivalent privacy (WEP) protection on most Wi-Fi systems is good enough for most home networks. Of course, you can always wait for the next Wi-Fi specification, 802.11i, which tackles the security issues. However, I suspect that Wi-Fi is going to be a mixed bag for quite some time. Maybe this is fiscally reckless (at the risk of replacing $50-$100 parts), but why wait?

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