True Wireless

Wireless LAN (WLAN) products have become widely popular and firmly established in the marketplace. In late 2002, Microsoft announced their line of home wireless equipment, thus confirming its popularity and permanence. Wireless networking has been around for a decade, but has only achieved wide popularity in the past few years.

This is for two reasons. First, the early attempts, such as the HomeRF standard, had slow transmission speeds and used a variety of proprietary protocols. You could not mix one manufacturer’s hardware with another or be assured that your investment would be useful in the years to follow.

The most common wireless solution for home and business networking today runs at a speed of 11 Mbps and does adhere to international specifications. If you buy an access point from one manufacturer, it will work with the built-in Wi-Fi interface in your laptop, assuming that both have been constructed to the standards agreed to by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

conferences and meetings and publish white papers. They also take input from many professionals, scholars, and students and resolve those into standards, which are detailed rules as to how a particular piece of electronic gear should work. Perhaps their most significant standards for our present purposes involve specifications for LANs.

These rules all start off with 802.XXX, as does the particular subset dealing with WLANs. Equipment makers have found through trial and error that they have a better chance of selling to a large market if their equipment can be easily judged against competitors and even be successfully intermixed.

Those who go it alone are sometimes said to be engaging in a connector conspiracy, which means that they hope to grab and hold you as a customer by selling you something that will only work with other equipment that they sell. Some manufacturers genuinely believe that their new product is completely new and superior.

Some of them actually manage to have their device accepted as a new standard, but they are taking an awful chance when they do. The slang term “to be Betamaxed” means to have a superior technical method eclipsed by a competing technology that is either superior for other reasons or simply better sold.

The classic example is Sony’s introduction of the Betamax videotape format. Years later, owners of the Betamax machines found themselves left high and dry as the world settled on the competing VHS format. (Sony stubbornly continued to manufacture the home version of the machine until mid-2002.)

The IEEE exists partly to keep that from happening by proactively taking the best aspects of competing technologies and combining them into one standard that everyone can live with. Other than market forces, they have no legal means to enforce a standard once they have handed it down.

In fact, some wireless home networking manufacturers still exist whose equipment is close to the standard and works well in most respects, but for some reason will not work interchangeably with all of it.

Once a standard has been set, it does not change, but real-world circumstances change all the time.Technologies, especially new and popular technologies like Wi-Fi networking, are constantly being improved and applied in new ways to solve new problems.

As the number of Wi-Fi technology users jumps upward from the 20 million on the air in 2002, for example, interference between users is bound to become a common problem. This is driving a migration to less crowded frequency bands.

The IEEE must move pretty quickly to accommodate changing applications and a growing market by adapting existing standards and, if necessary, making new extensions to them. Their goal is to allow for new technical capabilities without rendering an existing class of equipment obsolete.

The result of their efforts is a continuous stream of specifications for new variations of equipment, all beginning with the number 802. As the list of rules gets longer, it inevitably becomes more complex and more confusing. Even those who deal with it daily as a condition of employment refer to it as an alphabet soup.

Some manufacturers add features that have not been tested or approved to gain an advantage. But in order to remain in compliance, their equipment must be smart enough to communicate with any existing equipment that does adhere to the published standard.

Examples are wireless interface cards that will move data twice as quickly as nonwireless cards at 20 Mbps.When they encounter an interface broadcasting at the 802.11b standard rate of 11 Mbps, they must slow down to match it and do so without user intervention.

One manufacturer’s turbo mode might not work with others, even if both will interoperate at a standard speed. Eventually, the IEEE might define a technical standard that allows for turbo, and one or both of the manufacturers will have to give way in order to comply.

All these standards utilize very high frequencies on unlicensed portions of the radio spectrum, designated by the FCC as the Industrial, Scientific, and Medical (ISM) bands. They all use relatively low power and yield a relatively short range when compared to a cell phone. All use a frequency-hopping method that minimizes interference and provides a basic level of privacy.