December 22, 2003, 11:06 AM — The first generation of Wi-Fi devices for corporate networks has generated a great deal of interest in the untethered workplace, but not as much revenue as many vendors had expected. However, several vendors hope to decrease the number of access points needed to sustain a wireless office by expanding the range of corporate wireless LANs and improving the signal quality using smart antennas.
Most antennas on Wi-Fi switches and routers are "dumb," in that they have no added intelligence beyond their ability to detect electronic signals by locking on to the strongest signal they can find emanating from a client device. A "smart" antenna actively searches an area for Wi-Fi signals, and can blend several weak signals into a strong signal without any prompting from the user.
Smart antennas are not a new technology. Cell phone towers have used this technique for several years in helping to maintain a cell connection while the caller drives down the highway or walks across a city square. But the increasing ability of silicon chips to control the antenna and the cost reductions that come along with chips have primed smart antenna technology for the next generation of Wi-Fi devices.
Smart antennas appeal to universities or owners of large buildings such as airports or convention centers that need to provide Wi-Fi coverage over a large area, but corporations setting up smaller indoor wireless networks probably won't see enough of a performance benefit to justify the acquisition cost, said Chris Kozup, research director with Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut.
"Enterprises are looking for tools to make Wi-Fi easier to deploy, easier to manage, and easier to secure," Kozup said "Smart antennas are one of those, but they're not at the forefront of the list in providing that capability."
There is a tendency among enterprise technology buyers to feel overwhelmed when new technologies come out that are more difficult to understand, Kozup said. While an enterprise might have several staff members comfortable with networking technologies, they might not have IT staff comfortable with managing RF (radio frequency) devices, and would find it easier to just buy several cheap access points from an established vendor like Cisco Systems Inc. to guarantee coverage, he said.
The smart antenna vendors present a solid case that the total cost of managing a disparate network of access points might exceed the acquisition cost of more sophisticated technology, "but the best technology doesn't always win," Kozup said.
Vivato Inc. uses the technology in its 802.11b Wi-Fi switches for large indoor or outdoor coverage areas, said Phil Belanger, Vivato vice president of marketing, based in San Francisco. The switches use antennas called planar phased array antennas, which are actually several antenna elements built into a flat-panel device, he said.