Mixed Messages on 802.11a

By Ted Stevenson

September 25, 2001

While hardware vendors are quickly readying their first high-speed, 5GHz WLAN products for market, one analyst organization is counseling caution. Should we be rushing in, or putting on the brakes?

In a press release that was understandably overshadowed by the torrent of information emanating from New York City and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001, Intel Corporation announced the impending release of a line of wireless networking products based on 802.11a technology, due to be shipping in quantity in November of this year.

Timing aside, the announcement stirred considerable interest throughout the wireless networking community, which has been waiting impatiently to see the new 54Mbps technology in action.

Partly in response to the Intel announcement, on September 17, META Group issued an advisory analysis, Advent of 802.11a Creates Confusion in Wireless LAN Market, advocating a cautious wait-and-see attitude for would-be adopters.

Citing the likelihood of dramatically higher hardware costs relative to 802.11b (in the 2x range) and the need for a higher density of access point deployment to achieve the five-fold performance promised by 802.11a, the META report suggests that for the present the new WLAN technology represents a somewhat risky and expensive upgrade to existing wired and wireless networks—at least for most organizations.

Based on information we got from a spokesperson for 802.11a chipset maker Atheros Communications last month, however (see our article), the views aired in the META report regarding price and performance issues seemed open to question. Accordingly, we spoke with some other vendors planning to bring 802.11a products to market in the coming months.

Premium pricing?
As mentioned, the META report anticipates prices for 802.11a client adapters will likely be double the cost of the equivalent 802.11b products.

According to Pat Carson, vice president of business development and marketing at TDK (an Atheros partner), this depends on what market you're talking about.

Based on chipset costs, the initial premium for 802.11a equipment over 11b should be in the range of 20 to 25 percent, Carson told 802.11 Planet in a telephone interview. "In Japan, we plan a market-driven pricing strategy that will probably result in premiums being quite a bit higher—because we believe the market will support that," Carson said. "In the U.S., though, our strategy to make 11a price-competitive with 11b," he concluded.

Dan Park, principal product manager for wireless products at Intermec Technologies (another Atheros partner and OEM customer) expressed a similar view. "Atheros's choice of affordable CMOS technology [for the chipset] was aimed at enabling pricing fairly comparable to 802.11b equipment," Parks said.

Proxim, Inc. yesterday announced the release of its first 802.11a product, a Mini PCI Card module for OEMs. The company wouldn't comment on pricing for this, as it's dependent on purchase volume, but enterprise product manager Scott Ruck says Proxim's 802.11a PC Card client adapter will also be ready to ship soon.

"Initially, it will be priced about 25 percent above our equivalent 802.11b product," Ruck said, also indicating that that delta would fall "with volume."

Access point points
META Group's September 17 analysis asserts that "an 802.11a network requires about 40 to 50 percent more access points than does the current 802.11b to cover the same area." This finding is based on the idea that, as the report puts it, "to attain the higher data speeds [802.11a] promises, users must be much closer to the access point than they are for 802.11b.

According to vendors we spoke with, this view oversimplifies the technical realities and reaches a questionable conclusion.

Proxim's Scott Ruck told 802.11 Planet that, based on testing his company has been able to do with early prototype equipment, the "ultimate" (maximum useful) ranges of 802.11a and 802.11b are "essentially equivalent." Ruck went on to say that "at any given distance within that range, 11a maintains a three- to six-fold performance advantage over 11b."

"For example," Ruck said, "at the outer fringes of the 11Mpbs range for 11b [where its raw data link rate is about to step down to 5.5Mbps], 11a has stepped down twice, but is still operating at 36Mbps - a three-plus advantage. At the outer limit, where 11b is operating at 1Mbps, 11a is running at 6Mbps."

TDK's Pat Carlson agrees. Referring to an Atheros white paper in which the chipmaker, based on early testing, suggested that 11a offered a two- to five-fold data link rate advantage over 11b out to 225 feet from the access point, Carlson stated "Our belief is that Atheros's numbers are conservative. We expect real-world performance to be better. There will be at least a two- to three-x advantage over 11b throughout the useful range."

The migration equation
Prior to the release of actual 802.11a products, there's been a lot of speculation in the WLAN community about appropriate—read cost-justified—uses of the new, higher-speed technology, and how it would coexist with the widespread, but incompatible 802.11b networks.

Indeed the META Goup analysis concludes "Organizations that do not stand to gain clear business benefit from wireless LANs [such as healthcare, warehousing, and other environments that require support for roaming users] should put installation off for 12 to 18 months." It goes on to say, "those that are already using or installing 802.11b systems should not hurry to replace them with 802.11a solutions unless they are seriously bandwidth-constrained."

Customer migration is a strategic issue for all the vendors we spoke to. But they don't see it so much as an either/or matter. As Noel Hawke, who handles communications for Intermec's wireless group puts it, "You don't have to walk away from 11b to take advantage of 11a." That is, a significant investment in current technology is in no way undermined by further investments in the latest and greatest.

In the absence of a big price difference, a company's decision to move to 802.11a will likely be driven more by compatibility than by economic factors.

Intermec, like a number of other vendors, plans to address this by offering what it calls "dual radio" access point models (a technology on which the company holds important patents) that can serve both 801.11b and 802.11a nodes. It plans to begin shipping these units "several months after" its first 802.11a access points are released toward the end of this year, according to Dan Park.

Scott Ruck outlines a similar but different strategy for Proxim. That company, having recognized early on the need to support multiple technologies, decided to separate out the network management components typically found in a wireless access point, incorporating them instead into a separate device, the Harmony Access Point Controller. One Controller can manage an entire WLAN consisting of a mix of access points, 11a, 11b, and others as well, according to Ruck. The resulting cost savings on the access point itself, means that customers can purchase an 802.11a and an 802.11b access point for about the price of a typical 11b unit from a competitor, Ruck said.



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