Linksys goes dual-band on Wi-Fi

With its eyes on the future of home entertainment and a relatively uncluttered band of radio spectrum, Cisco Systems Inc.'s Linksys division on Wednesday unveiled a line of IEEE 802.11g/a wireless LAN products.

The devices, including a router and clients for both notebooks and desktops, can provide Wi-Fi connectivity over either of two unlicensed radio bands. The 2.4GHz band, used by 802.11g, is also home to some cordless phones, microwaves and other devices that can cause interference. The 802.11a technology uses spectrum in the 5.0GHz band, where there is less competition from other devices and services.

Linksys, which Cisco acquired last year, launched the devices Wednesday at an event in San Francisco to promote its aggressive move into what it sees as a burgeoning market for home networking. Also at the Wednesday event, Linksys introduced a new video camera with a faster wireless LAN connection and unveiled a deal with Verizon Communications Inc. in which the carrier will provide Cisco VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) adapters to customers of its broadband telephony service.

Linksys sees 802.11a as the emerging home Wi-Fi technology as consumers begin using more demanding entertainment applications, such as streaming music and movies, Linksys President Charlie Giancarlo said at the event. It has been used almost exclusively in enterprises, in part because of the relatively high cost of dual radios for networks that support both 802.11a and other Wi-Fi specifications.

Now, some consumer electronics vendors, such as Sony Corp., are aiming at 802.11a for their coming wireless entertainment devices. Both its speed and its relatively "clean" spectrum band make it ideal for entertainment uses, Giancarlo said. Like 802.11g, 802.11a offers a theoretical maximum carrying capacity of 54M bps (bits per second), compared with 11M bps for the earlier, widely deployed 802.11b technology.

Linksys's 802.11a/g products will ship next month with estimated list prices starting at US$89 for a PC Card or PCI adapter. A USB (Universal Serial Bus) adapter will cost $99 and a router will sell for $109. The PC Card and PCI adapter include WPA (Wireless Protected Access) security capability. All the devices will work with older 802.11b equipment as well.

Under the deal with Verizon, the carrier will provide a Linksys PAP2 (Phone Adapter with 2 Phone Ports) free to VoiceWing customers. The PAP2 is an ATA (analog telephony adapter) with one Ethernet port for connection to a broadband router and a pair of phone ports for simultaneously using two phones for VOIP (or a phone and a fax). Since Verizon introduced VoiceWing in July, it has been providing customers the older Cisco ATA 186, according to Michelle Swittenberg, executive director of consumer VOIP at Verizon. The PAP2 offers more features than the Cisco product, including the ability to add a second line and assign different ring tones for different callers. Swittenberg would not discuss adapter products from other vendors, but said the deal with Linksys is not exclusive.

Consumers can only get the PAP2 directly from Verizon, after signing up for the VoiceWing service. Verizon hopes within the next two years to begin providing another Linksys adapter that combines the ATA function with a router and selling it through retail channels, Swittenberg said. At this stage in VOIP use, most customers are early adopters who already have routers at home, she said.

Cisco may bring Wi-Fi and consumer VOIP together soon, Giancarlo said in an interview following the event. Cisco already has a Wi-Fi phone for enterprises.

"The real issue with getting it to the home is just getting the price to the right level," along with ruggedness and ease of use, Giancarlo said. He expects to see the first Wi-Fi VOIP phones in homes in the next 12 months.

The Linksys video camera introduced Wednesday, the Wireless-G Internet Video Camera, uses 802.11g, an upgrade from its earlier 802.11b camera with more bandwidth, as well as an LCD (liquid crystal display) to help consumers set up and use the product. It is available immediately for an estimated street price of $199.

The Linksys division saw great success in Cisco's most recent fiscal year, which ended in July, and has even taught the parent company some lessons, according to Giancarlo, who in addition to his Linksys title is Cisco's chief technology officer.

So far, Cisco has adopted elements of Linksys' low-cost manufacturing model, taking advantage of Asian manufacturing partners, in product lines for small and medium-sized businesses, Giancarlo said. In particular, this approach has helped cut costs on 800 Series routers and on stackable switches such as the Catalyst 2950 Series, he said.

However, in many cases Cisco won't be able to emulate Linksys's agility in developing and releasing new products, he said. Whereas Linksys can quickly roll out new products for niche markets of early adopters, each new Cisco enterprise product needs to be able to work in a wide variety of network environments all over the world, Giancarlo said.

One strong region for Linksys in the fiscal year was Europe, he said. Sales roughly tripled there as Linksys entered a fragmented market with still limited use of home networks. European homes are less likely to have a second PC or a notebook, both of which tend to drive adoption of wireless LANs, he said. However, European broadband service providers are starting to push Wi-Fi as a tool for separating the PC from the physical broadband connection. Many older homes in Europe have a limited number of phone jacks, and consumers don't want to have to keep their computers in that part of the home, he said.

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