Wireless network standard allows for more freedom

by ALAN ZISMAN (c) 2001

First published in Business in Vancouver, Issue #622 September 25-October 1, 2001: The High-tech Office column

A few weeks ago, this column looked at a new-ish technology with the charming name of IEEE 1394, perhaps more easily remembered under Apple's trademarked name of Firewire.

Try not to confuse it with this week's IEEE 802.11b. While 1394 is a way to connect high-speed devices such as digital camcorders to a computer, 802.11b is a standard for wireless networking.

(Inquiring minds might like to know that IEEE stands for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a nonprofit industry organization that tries to set standards so that hardware for different manufacturers can communicate.)

Like Firewire, 802.11b has been around for a couple of years, slowly gaining acceptance. Apple has pushed both standards -- in the case of 802.11b, it created the Airport, an increasingly popular option particularly on the company's Powerbook and Ibook notebooks. And like Firewire, 802.11b is finally on the verge of popular acceptance in the much larger PC market.

Apple's Airport add-ons, while affordable, have been Mac-only. And PC products, such as 3Com's Airconnect, which this column looked at in issue 592, tended to be expensive and aimed at large corporations. As well, the first generation of 802.11b devices weren't particularly standard; there was no guarantee that one company's hardware would play nice with gadgets with a different brand name.

What a difference half a year or so makes! Suddenly, there's a new generation of 802.11b, sometimes marketed as WiFi devices. They come from companies such as Linksys, Dlink and Xircom, which have brought prices down to Apple's loss-leader levels, and they mostly manage to talk to one another. Add-ons aimed at PCs come in a variety of forms: PCI cards can be installed inside a desktop computer, PC cards can be slid into a notebook or USB add-ons can be easily plugged into either a desktop or notebook PC. Xircom is even marketing products for Visor or Palm PDAs.

In addition to adapters for each computer, an 802.11b wireless network requires a base station to plug into your network or Internet connection device. Typically, each base station has a range of about 100 metres to 250 metres. For larger areas, multiple base stations can be used. (Building construction can affect signal strength, so setting up a wireless network can take a bit of trial and error.) Speed is advertised as 11 Mb/sec, but in reality people get about half that, making it more or less comparable to standard Ethernet networking speeds.

With 802.11b's standardization and growing popularity, it is starting to show up as an option in public places. This summer, Simon Fraser University's Education Faculty set up a collection of base stations, enabling students to connect to the campus network and Internet anywhere in the education building or out on the plaza. The Four Seasons Hotel and the Ramada Vancouver Centre have both contracted with Austin, Texas-based Wayport Inc. (www.wayport.net) to provide wireless Internet access in their meeting rooms and other public spaces.

I could almost recommend 802.11b without qualification. However, worries exist. There are increasing concerns about security. 802.11b offers optional encryption, but there have been reports of "drive-by hackers" logging onto corporate networks from nearby parked cars. SFU put extra care into placement of its base stations to ensure access in the Education Faculty's outside plaza, but not at other locations. And turning on encryption slows network performance.

Just when it seems safe to standardize on 802.11b, another, noncompatible standard is looming. 802.11a (are we confused yet?) devices are just starting to appear, promising speeds up to five times that of earlier standards, but minus compatibility with existing 11b devices. Yet another standard, 802.11g, promises faster performance and compatibility with existing 11b devices, but is stalled as different vendors are proposing different specifications.

Take a look at my GearGuide column in this week's CurrentZ section for some wireless devices.


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan