The Need for Speed

Even before the ink dried on 802.11g, some companies were pushing for still faster Wi-Fi connections. Do we really need all that speed?

The race is on to provide a faster Wi-Fi experience. From special chips to souped-up standards, companies are releasing a bevy of products aimed at leaving your 802.11g gadgets in the dust. But as developers push 108Mbps wireless connections, others ask: What's the rush?

Part of the reason for the drive toward faster Wi-Fi is the discovery by consumers and enterprise users that the marketing hype of wireless performance just wasn't adding up to unwired reality. Throughput entered the lexicon of Wi-Fi users.

802.11b was touted as having a data speed of 11Mbps, yet real-world performance showed data passing between laptops and access points was actually hovering around a fraction of that. The newest 802.11g standard fell into the same trap, trumpeting 54Mbps speed but delivering just 20Mbps.

Greg Raleigh, CEO of Airgo Networks, a company promoting its own multiple input, multiple output (MIMO) technology as a way to goose future wireless throughput, says current Wi-Fi speeds won't be enough to meet the demands of future markets.

Airgo says its new chipsets have an effective throughput of between 72 Mbps and 107 Mbps.

Raleigh believes Wi-Fi is only in its adolescence and will branch from current low-demanding tasks of swapping text on the Internet, to viewing streaming video, re-broadcasting audio throughout entertainment centers and exchanging mammoth databases for enterprise customers.

Along with the ever-present security concerns, Raleigh says enterprises are reluctant to fully embrace Wi-Fi due to its slowness. He believes enterprise wireless networks require at least 30 Mbps for their demanding applications.

So what about 802.11n, the standard being considered by the IEEE to boost 802.11 throughput to nearly 100 Mbps? Although Raleigh is confident his MIMO technology will be part of the new standard, he believes the market can't wait for the several years needed for the new standard to be approved.

However, while Raleigh says there is no time to wait for a faster Wi-Fi, he says he won't follow the same path of 802.11g and release products based on pre-ratified standards.

"We learned from their mistakes," he says. "We're not trying to get the world to embrace our standards."

Still, Raleigh is confident that consumers will pay a premium for the three-antenna MIMO solution. He says the chipsets will add $20 to $50 to Wi-Fi devices, but argues that it is less costly than many 802.11a/b/g implementations.

But is the extra speed needed? Julie Ask, senior analyst at Jupiter Research, says yes. (Editor's note: Jupiter Research is a division of Jupitermedia, the parent company of this publication.)

"For the enterprise, it means more users per AP," says Ask. "Fewer fixed points translates to lower installation costs, user and bandwidth allocation."

Ask also says faster Wi-Fi "can handle more data-intensive apps like voice or moving CAD files."

In the end, a faster Wi-Fi is a good idea, "but not every application, household or enterprise will need it -- at least in the short term," concludes Ask.

"I guess it goes back to the 'American way' that more is somehow better," says Allen Nogee, an analyst at In-Stat/MDR, noting that most people only use Wi-Fi to share Internet connections, and thus don't really need the higher throughput.

Airgo certainly isn't the only company pushing for faster Wi-Fi. Chipmaker Atheros Communications offers a "Super G" and "Super A/G" technology that has been adopted or modified for use by companies including Netgear and D-Link. Other chipmakers like GlobespanVirata, which bought Intersil's WLAN product line, and Broadcom are planning their own speed boosts. Most use a variation of technology that will be standard in 802.11e, the future IEEE specification for WLAN Quality of Service (QoS) for video, audio, and voice traffic.

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