Wi-Fi bandwidth breakthroughs leave consumers behind

As the market for wireless networking products continues to grow, vendors are constantly one-upping each other with performance claims for their products. However, it's a moot point to millions of U.S. and European home users stuck with Internet connection speeds far below the bandwidth promised by new 802.11g products.

Cisco Systems Inc.'s Linksys division Monday announced a new wireless router using Broadcom Corp.'s chipset technology that promises to improve the real-world performance that most home users experience using 802.11g wireless networks. The same day, Broadcom rival Atheros Communications Inc. unveiled a software update that will improve the bandwidth of 802.11g products based on its chips.

Wireless networking standards, such as 802.11g, are marketed with a maximum throughput figure that typical home users fall well short of under normal conditions. For 802.11g, the standard is capable of connecting wireless devices at up to 54 Mbps (bits per second), but most users see about 20 Mbps to 25 Mbps depending on the layout of their home or the materials used in the walls and floors.

Linksys' new Wireless-G Broadband Router with SpeedBooster is said to improve real-world network performance by up to 35 percent, the company claimed in a press release. It costs US$129.99, and will be available in April. Linksys also released Monday plug-in cards with the SpeedBooster technology for both desktop and notebook PCs that cost $99.99.

In tests conducted by the company and by independent organizations, a wireless network using the new router and new plug-in cards was able to produce bandwidth of about 34 Mbps, said Mike Wagner, director of marketing for Linksys. The company saw an increase in performance of about 20 percent if only one of the new products was used on a wireless network, he said.

Users of wireless products based on Atheros' Super G technology can now download a software update that allows their networks to toggle between two wireless performance modes that offer up to 40 Mbps and 60 Mbps of bandwidth, said Colin Mcnabb, vice president of marketing and business development for Atheros. The 60 Mbps mode, known as Dynamic Turbo, uses a controversial technique called channel bonding that Broadcom and some independent testers claim impedes the performance of neighboring wireless networks based on other technology.

The new software allows an Atheros chipset to scan other wireless channels for traffic and make a decision to enable the channel bonding mode based on the levels of traffic present on those networks, Mcnabb said. This was a planned software update to hardware introduced last year, and was not done in response to Broadcom's claims, he said.

Atheros does not believe the Super G technology causes interference problems in real-world conditions, Mcnabb said. However, the new adaptive technology will allow the chipset to avoid the channel bonding technique if it detects a large amount of traffic in a given area.

There are few wireless home networks in the U.S. and Europe that can take advantage of those bandwidth speeds even before the latest improvements in networking technology. Cable modem connection speeds average about 3 Mbps, and DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) connections are even slower, said Will Strauss, principal analyst with Forward Concepts Co. in Tempe, Arizona.

Under some conditions, such as a home peer-to-peer network, the improved bandwidth delivered by the new products might help performance, Strauss said. Otherwise, home users have no need for bandwidth that far exceeds the bottleneck created by their Internet connection, he said.

"We're seeing the market continuing to grow as prices come down. If you can't distinguish your products on price, you do it on performance" even if that performance is beyond the reach of most consumers, Strauss said.

Enterprise users are a different matter. Fast T3 lines to large corporations can offer up to 100 Mbps of bandwidth, and advances such as SpeedBooster and Super G will help improve performance in these environments, Strauss said.

South Korea and Japan are aggressively proposing investments in faster home Internet connections that could take advantage of these products, Strauss said. Current broadband speeds in the two countries generally exceed those of most countries in North America and Europe, he said.

Linksys sells its products almost exclusively to the home marketplace. Its products are used in some small business environments, which generally can't afford T3 service.

Broadcom and Atheros' products are used in both commercial and consumer products from vendors such as Cisco, D-Link Inc., Proxim Corp., and NetGear Inc.

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