Wireless local-area networks (WLANs) are experiencing phenomenal growth as more enterprises extend existing LANs with wireless and more consumers add home networks. The IEEE 802.11b WLAN standard still dominates with its 11-Mbit/s data rate in the 2.4-GHz band. Some organizations have adopted the faster 802.11a standard, which provides up to 54-Mbit/s speed in the 5-GHz band. The 802.11g standard was approved last year, with many already jumping on board due to its 54-Mbit/s speed in the 2.4-GHz band and its backward-compatibility with 802.11b equipment.
The IEEE recently approved a study group for an even faster WLAN. Designated 802.11n, this future standard will extend the data rate into the 108- to 320-Mbit/s range. It will take several years to reach a final standard, but the work has begun.
While most WLAN sales are in enterprise and homes, the most impressive growth is in hot spots. Tens of thousands of remote wireless access points have been built over the past year, making Internet access available in many locations. Tens of thousands more will be built in the coming years as well.
An enormous part of the growth is in short-range wireless and personal area networks (PANs). Complex digital micro-wave radios like Bluetooth already can replace cables only a few feet long. Low-speed, low-power ZigBee radios will soon give wireless capability to even more devices like toys, games, PC peripherals, and home monitoring and control, as well as industrial sensors and building controls.
Ultra-wideband radios with their 100- to 500-Mbit/s data rates will find extensive use in home entertainment to interconnect wall-mounted plasma/LCD TV sets, DVD players, digital personal recorders, cable boxes, and audio equipment. Radio-frequency identification (RFID), another wireless technology, is rapidly replacing the traditional bar code. It's also finding thousands of uses in supply-chain management, asset tracking, and automatic access.
The forthcoming wireless broadband connections will offer speeds of up to 155 Mbits/s over a range up to 50 km. With all of the attention it's getting today, we can expect better chips and even more sophisticated wireless equipment in the future. Sit back and enjoy the convenience and benefits.
- Increased use of WLANs in the enterprise. With an improved economy, many larger companies are building out existing LANs with 802.11 or Wi-Fi wireless. It's faster, easier, and cheaper to extend the LAN with wireless. While 1-Gbit Ethernet is moving to the desktop thanks to CAT5/6, wireless extensions make mobile access in conference rooms and new cubes easy to implement.
- Rollout of hot spots. With over 12,000 hot spots in hotels, airports, and restaurants, you have to wonder if they've reached a plateau. Apparently they haven't because hot-spot companies like Wayport, Boingo, and Cometa are building even more. Starbucks, McDonald's, and other franchises are joining in, with more to come. Expect upwards of 100,000 hot spots by 2007.
- Cell-phone carriers join the Wi-Fi parade. Fearing they may lose customers to hot spots for lack of 2.5G or 3G services not yet in place, cellular companies are starting up hot-spot services themselves. Installing the hot spots is easy, while back-office operations are difficult. Cell-phone carriers have gotten the hang of it, mailing a comprehensively detailed bill each month. Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint are already in the fray, with more expected to join. Expect to see Wi-Fi in some future cell phones so you're never out of touch.
- Roaming agreements fuel the hot-spot fire. Independent hot-spot vendors and wireless carriers are now implementing roaming agreements among themselves to further facilitate access. If you sign up with a company but venture into an area it doesn't cover, you won't have access unless you pay for another service in that area. New roaming agreements give you access wherever you are and only one monthly bill.
- Increased integration. Most Wi-Fi interfaces have been on cards that plug into a laptop's PCMCIA slot. Newer laptops come with the Wi-Fi interface built in. This will continue, making it a standard just like the built-in modems and Ethernet connections populating today's PCs. It will also continue with PDAs. New single-chip Wi-Fi radios with low-power consumption now make hot-spot access via a PDA practical. Think of a RIM Blackberry with cellular access as well as Wi-Fi.
- Shakeout in chip vendors. The exodus has already begun, with Intersil leaving the market for more profitable pastures. At least a dozen semiconductor companies currently make Wi-Fi chips. With such competition, the ranks will no doubt be thinned as volumes increase. Because all chips must meet 802.11 standards, there's precious little to distinguish one from another. The focus is primarily on reducing the number of chips in a set, increasing the integration of external components, and reducing power consumption. These chips are now commodity parts, so look for the consolidation to ensue.
- Continued ramp-up of home networks. Wi-Fi is the leading home-networking technology because wireless is so convenient. Power-line and phone-line networking options are available, but there's nothing like the mobility and freedom wireless offers. Home wireless gateways rank as one of the most often returned consumer electronic devices because of poor to no documentation. Lousy manuals assume homeowners are super PC techs. Helplines aren't so great either. Home-networking companies are missing the chance to extend the usefulness to home monitoring and control. So far, none of the wireless units do any more than tie two or more PCs to a high-speed Internet connection. It's time for the second- or third-generation gateways to emerge.
- Is security really still an issue? Despite a massive effort by companies and standards organizations, WLAN security is still the sticking point for many in the enterprise. Yet the problem's solved. It's not so much the lack of a solution, but the commitment to using it. All Wi-Fi units have built-in security, such as WEP in the older versions. But you have to turn it on, and most users don't. The newer WPA and vendor-specific solutions are also excellent. Soon, IEEE 802.11i software and hardware will be available to do even more. But again, you must activate it. Most hot spots and even many enterprise WLANs don't even bother. Quit griping about this and use what's available or set up a VPN to handle it. This shouldn't be an issue.
- Major growth of wireless PANs. A lot's going on in short-range wireless and PAN. Previously dominated by Bluetooth, this sector is expanding as new technologies appear. Bluetooth continues its success with the new v1.2 and its adaptive frequency hopping (AFH). The IEEE recently approved the low-speed 802.15.4 ZigBee standard, which offers data rates of 20, 40, and 250 kbits/s in the 868-MHz, 915-MHz, and 2.4-GHz bands using DSSS. This format is ideal for simple lower-cost applications like toys, PC peripherals, wireless sensor networks, and industrial and building monitoring and control uses. Home control is also a strong application. The ability of ZigBee chips to form mesh networks to extend their range will make them a popular choice for many new and unexpected networking applications.
- Ultra wideband (UWB) will emerge This IEEE standard, 802.15.3, is still in development. Two camps of companies support different versions, so a single standard has yet to emerge. The multiband OFDM version has the most support, but the CDMA version is now available in hardware. It's too early to say which version will win or if both will be approved. When that happens, vendors can begin offering unique PAN applications with data rates from 100 to 500 Mbits/s spanning a 10-meter range. Home-entertainment networks will link TV sets, wall-mount LCD screens, DVD players, PVRs, and audio systems.