CES may make wireless LANs hot again

Advances in pre-11n Wi-Fi gear herald high performance; Wi-Fi Alliance airs new protection scheme.

LAS VEGAS -- Wi-Fi LANs are now such a routine part of computing life for so many users, that it’s hard to imagine getting excited about them again.

LAS VEGAS -- Wi-Fi LANs are now such a routine part of computing life for so many users that it’s hard to imagine getting excited about them again.

But this year’s giant Consumer Electronics Show, drawing an estimated 140,000 attendees and here, may succeed in doing just that.

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Wireless LAN chipmakers and equipment manufacturers are showcasing advances in the next generation of Wi-Fi: products based on Draft 1 of the still-developing 802.11n standard. So-called pre-11n adapters and access points exploded in the home and small and midsize business markets last year, offering throughput rates typically of 80M to 100Mbps in the 2.4GHz band, far above the 19M to 23Mbps throughput usually realized by 802.11g gear.

But at CES, attendees can see new WLAN access points (compare WLAN products) that deliver two or three times that throughput, and do so simultaneously on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, with as many as 27 channels total. It’s still true that the bandwidth is shared by all the users on a given access point. But these new products make possible WLANs with the capacity, sustained throughput, reliability and range for demanding applications and pervasive connectivity.

And in a key innovation, chipmakers are now dramatically improving their network processors, which are packaged with the radio chipsets in access points and routers, to manage the flood of data, voice, video and audio packets that 11n will create. That data flood will overwhelm the current generation of processors.

Finally, the Wi-Fi Alliance, which originated the term “Wi-Fi,” this week unveils a new industry specification called Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), a standard that’s intended to make it much simpler for buyers of Wi-Fi gear to create very secure wireless connections. And it may well push enterprise users to demand a new simplicity and effectiveness in securing corporate WLANs and mobile employees.

Wi-Fi body to simplify security setup

The 802.11n high-throughput standard is based mainly on the multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) technology. MIMO uses the same modulation scheme as 802.11a and 11g, but it also uses two, three or more antennas on both sides of a wireless link, some special signal processing, and a technique called spatial multiplexing. MIMO breaks a single data stream into two, three or more slower -- and therefore more stable and reliable -- substreams that are reassembled on the other end. MIMO dramatically increases the amount of data possible on the link, and enables sustained higher rates over longer distances than do today’s WLANs.

MIMO itself isn’t new, but what the vendors are doing with this year’s CES announcements is. The newest products are based on the current Draft 1 of the 11n standard. The IEEE 11n working group meets later this month and is expected to take a critical next step in finalizing what will become Draft 2. If the IEEE stays on schedule, that draft should become final in the next couple of months, triggering a new certification testing program by the Wi-Fi Alliance in April or May, as well as a wave of Draft 2-compliant products in the latter half of 2007.

Atheros this week is demonstrating its latest 11n Draft-1 MIMO chipset, intended for WLAN access points. This package of chips adds two new ones: a 5GHz baseband media-access-control chip and radio chip corresponding to the 2.4GHz chips. That means an Atheros-based access point can send and receive at 11n rates on both frequencies at the same time, says Tod Anthes, vice president of marketing for Atheros in Santa Clara, Calif.

These so-called dual-concurrent 11n access points are not an arcane development by some silicon wizards. Their importance is underlined by Microsoft’s launch of Vista, its latest Windows platform, which has some demanding certification requirements for wireless vendors, including this dual-concurrent capability. To secure Microsoft's coveted Vista premium certification, wireless vendors have to show that their access points and wireless routers can support 11n on both frequencies.

Atheros and rival Broadcom have introduced more powerful network processors for these same products. Atheros unveils this week its high-end 600MHz processor, with a Gigabit Ethernet interface. Broadcom’s new network processor for its Intensi-fi pre-11n chipset also supports Gigabit Ethernet. The Irvine, Calif., chipmaker says the new chip delivers more than 160Mbps of TCP/IP throughput for wireless clients (and Gigabit Ethernet speeds for wired clients), eliminating potential bottlenecks for such demanding applications as streaming high-definition video.

Several WLAN vendors already are using, and touting, dual-concurrent, pre-11n hardware. Buffalo Technology’s new AirStation Wireless-N Nfiniti dual-band router and access point supports 11n, as well as 11g and 11a, on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, and incorporates a four-port Gigabit Ethernet switch and a Gigabit Ethernet WAN port. It was named as a winner in the 2007 International CES Innovations Design and Engineering Award program. It ships this month, at a list price of $299, compared with the existing 2.4GHz MIMO access point, which is priced at $150 to $200.

“We’ll offer buyers, in effect, two 802.11 networks in that one product, one on the 2.4 band, the other on the 5 band, and they can run at the same time,” says Brian Verenkoff, product marketing manager for Austin, Texas-based Buffalo.

Among other things, that means that users can dedicate bands and channels to different types of traffic, using the 2.4GHz band for Web surfing and e-mail, for example, and the 5GHz band for bandwidth-hungry video or dense user populations.

SMC Networks has announced the SMC Barricade N Wireless four-port broadband router, along with PCI and Cardbus adapters. The Irvine, Calif., vendor says the products will support speeds as fast as 300Mbps. The router includes a four-port 10/100 Ethernet switch, the pre-11n access point, a network-address-translation firewall, and stateful packet inspection. All three products are available. The Barricade router costs $120; the PCI adapter, $90, and the Cardbus Adapter, $80.

Security for all these products should become simpler, thanks to the WPS specification. Broadcom, Atheros and Buffalo already have announced support. WPS is an optional certification program vendors can apply for, if they implement the specification in their Wi-Fi products.

When a WPS-certified access point and client are turned on, they automatically find each other. The user then pushes a button on the device, or creates and enters a PIN for each device on the WLAN. Either action triggers WPS to configure the devices with preset security features, based on the Wi-Fi Protected Access security spec, which implements the IEEE 802.11i WLAN security changes. In effect, WPS makes it easier for users to activate and use these powerful security features, which have been mandatory for manufacturers since March 2006.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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