Is the Wi-Fi End Nigh?

By Ed Sutherland

November 04, 2003

One analyst says that day is coming -- soon -- when 802.11 signals will be too prolific, and will mean the end of Wi-Fi as we know it.

Will the success of Wi-Fi turn into a wireless Babylon as infinite access points battle for your attention? A new report suggesting increasing interference will ruin the wireless experience is enough to curdle your mocha latte.

Here's the scenario hypothesized by analyst Peter Kastner of market research firm Aberdeen Group in his report entitled "The Urban Wi-Fi Crash of 2004": You are at your favorite Starbucks using your laptop and a Wi-Fi connection to browse your company's latest financial reports when the session is broken by stray signals from a nearby wireless apartment, nearby hotspot, or that community-run freenet down the street.

"That latte and e-mail session at Starbucks can easily be broken by too much interference from other urban wireless traffic," says Kastner.

The convergence of access points costing under $100, Intel's push to unwire computers with its Centrino Mobile chipset, and the growing number of wireless devices in the home will result in more and more Wi-Fi users frustrated by the wireless version of a 'busy' signal, says Kastner.

He believes Intel's Centrino wireless push in particular is a "direct stimulus" for an upcoming Wi-Fi crash as more wireless notebook computers are used at home and the increasing number of Wi-Fi enabled computers "are driving the demand for more access points."

Kastner says currently 300,000 to 400,000 Wi-Fi access points are sold each month. The competing wireless signals jostling for your computer's attention means greater interference resulting in dropped signals and more requests to reconnect.

"When this happens every few seconds -- a scenario we are experiencing now with brand-name equipment -- the end of the Wi-Fi world as we know it is imminent," says Kastner.

The report grows out of Kastner's personal experience as college students flooded back into Boston in September. The barrage of wireless signals coming from nearby access points created headaches for his Wi-Fi-enabled laptop.

Although the maximum range of a Wi-Fi access point is generally regarded as 300 feet, Kastner says weak signals can travel even farther.

"Even if you are six feet away from your access point, some other access point within a football field-wide sphere can ruin your Web surfing at work or home," says the analyst.

The reason why is the paucity of channels available to 802.11b/g. With only three channels, signals from microwave ovens, cordless phones, as well as Wi-Fi access points, are not properly separated and requiring "so much error-correcting retransmission that it degrades the throughput of both the sender and the receiver," says Kastner.

Is there a silver lining to such a crash? Maybe, but the solutions to this Wi-Fi congestion are hard to swallow.

"We move to more ruggedized, easier to use secure Wi-Fi infrastructure. But we have to junk most of the hardware out there to do it," says Kastner.

One option is to migrate to 802.11a with more room for wireless devices and less possibilities of interfering signals. But this means consumers ditching their 802.11b/g access points and PC cards -- something Kastner believes would be palatable to only ten percent of the Wi-Fi market.

Another solution would be antennas that focus the Wi-Fi signal into a tight beam or smart software that picks a channel, adjusts the sensitivity of a transmitter or receiver to the minimum required for a good connection and then able to turn away unknown signals. Kastner here points to work by chipmaker Atheros Communications to extend 802.11b's range to 900 feet.

The best solution is for politicians to give the 2.4Ghz band more spectrum -- more channels.

"We are not holding our breath," says the report.

Kastner adds that he "has gone back to wired Ethernet at home in my city apartment."

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