April 09, 2003, 2:49 PM — Here's a gamble: pick a letter of the alphabet between A and G (inclusive). Now be prepared to bet a lot of money that your choice represents an enduring technology direction.
That's something of the challenge facing organizations contemplating wireless networking rollouts in the next 18 months. Do you sink your money into equipment enabled to run on the emerging 802.11a and 802.11g Wi-Fi standards, or look for new and improved services being offered over conventional cellular networks (in the expectation that those services, some of which remain expensive, will become cheaper)?
Looking further ahead, the next decade will see many changes, most likely including far wider availability of Wi-Fi hotspots, the emergence of metro-area Wi-Fi networks and the extension of Wi-Fi access to vehicles and planes (with which at least two airlines are experimenting right now).
Security in the Wi-Fi area will (presumably) be a lot better, with users demanding much higher standards than at present as the technology moves into the mainstream.
The Wi-Fi world is set to receive a boost in the near future if a draft standard before the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is accepted.
The 802.3af draft outlines a way to run electricity over ethernet cables, paving the way for easier deployment of wireless LANs by removing the need to run both power and network lines to wireless LAN endpoints.
At least two vendors, 3Com and Foundry Networks, have released PoE (power over ethernet) hardware, as the technology also has benefits for wired networks.
Foremost among wireless questions to be answered in the next few years is whether 802.11a or 802.11g will become the natural successor to the present wireless LAN industry standard, 802.11b.
Both offer speeds of up to 54Mbit/s in ideal conditions, which means in reality that you might get 30Mbit/s or so.
802.11a operates in a different radio frequency band to 802.11b and thus for those already using b there are compatibility issues with migrating to a, whereas g offers a clearer path, running in the same spectrum as b.
Some wireless LAN hardware manufacturers are going with g exclusively, but most are hedging their bets and shipping dual-mode products, so just which will become b's natural successor is unclear at this stage.
Once the a-g contest is settled, however, it won't be the end of wireless LAN development