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What cost fast wireless?

Nov 04, 20024 mins
Cellular NetworksRoutersWi-Fi

Putting 802.11a SOHO products through their paces in the home

The high-tech market research firm In-Stat/MDR predicts 33 million total Wi-Fi node shipments in 2006, up from the six million expected this year. Vendors hope we work wirelessly in the corporate office and at home – hooking together our computing and entertainment devices to our surround-sound and high-definition TVs for a wonderfully rich, integrated experience.

The reality? The first-generation 802.11b  products, running at 2.4GHz and 11M bit/sec, work through two or three walls fairly reliably, but are too slow to transmit video well. Second-generation 802.11a products, running at 5GHz and 54M bit/sec, show great promise for video but haven’t fared well in the Suburban Test Lab I call home. Essentially, 802.11a  trades higher data speeds for shorter range. Even so, vendors are happy to sell 802.11a products to SOHO customers as well as to the enterprise for which they were designed.

Linksys and NetGear sent me wireless access points (routers connecting the wireless to the wired network) and PC Cards. There’s plenty of good news: Setup is easier than ever, utility software is great, and speeds are excellent. But if 802.11b is considered a “two-wall” technology (you can almost always get strong signals through two walls), 802.11a is a “no-wall” technology, or at best a “one-wall” one.

Note: No doubt some technical reason explains the nomenclature, but there’s no way the slower 11M bit/sec standard should be 802.11b and the faster 54M bit/sec standard labeled 802.11a. Thinking of “B” as “base-line Ethernet,” and “A” as “advanced” helps me keep it straight, though.

I plugged the NetGear HA501 PC Card ($110) into a Dell laptop running Windows 98 and the HR314 802.11a Cable/DSL High-Speed Wireless Router ($370) into my network. This version of the popular HR314 model router family supports wireless but also includes a four-port switch for 100M bit/sec Ethernet connections, and a separate plug for the DSL/cable modem. Client software installation was a snap, and I was up and running in 5 minutes.

Connections to my Compaq ProLiant ML330 NetWare server and Intel InBusiness Network Attached Storage box worked exactly as when hard-wired. Internet access worked the same way. In fact, the NetGear and Linksys products performed just as if they were connected to the network by cables rather than radio waves.

In testing, I concentrated on standard PC-to-network tasks. Both wireless products connected to the network, discovered the address information for servers and Internet connections, and supported NetWare security. File transfers, including playing MP3 files with WinAmp across the network, worked as always. As time and equipment permits I’ll tackle convergence projects. (Suggestions welcomed at

The Linksys WPC54A PC card ($110) looks like the NetGear card (and in fact connected easily to the NetGear router) and worked immediately after software installation. The WAP54AB ($240) supports 11M bit/sec and 54M bit/sec wireless clients but doesn’t have any plugs to support other network devices like the NetGear one does.

Good news: Both PC Cards and routers worked great inside the office. They worked OK from the next room, one wall away. If you have a few PCs in one or two connected rooms, you can network without a problem or a single LAN cable.

Mediocre news: Neither company’s products worked upstairs, or even two walls away. I haven’t done an exhaustive test everywhere in the house (“Can you hear me now?”), but the higher I went up the stairs the lower the connection strength meter dipped, until the signal was lost. Linksys made it to the landing, but NetGear’s signal didn’t disappear until the top step.

Bad news: Wireless Encryption Protocol (WEP) remains a problem. (More in an upcoming column.) Vendors have trouble providing the level of security companies need without including so much so that the configuration details scare off consumers. Ironically, the most reliable security in most 802.11a systems now is the short radio wave range, meaning you can’t get a connection from very far away.