The 802.11a standard was expected to begin taking the wireless LAN market by storm this year. Instead, its rollout has fizzled, despite the fivefold data rate increase 802.11a offers over its well-entrenched predecessor, 802.11b, also known as Wi-Fi.
The problem is chip manufacturers have come up against yield/cost and interoperability issues with 802.11a that they have yet to surmount.
"There's already an installed base of 802.11b and chipmakers don't want to isolate those customers who are seeking returns on their 802.11b investments by supporting other OEMs who are launching 802.11a products," said Ken Furer, an analyst at IDC in Mountain View, Calif.
"802.11b [ICs] are also readily available and much cheaper than 802.11a devices, which explains why 802.11a-based OEM products [like access points and PC cards] are not shipping in volume yet."
When Atheros Communications Inc. last year produced the first 802.11a chips in volume, pre dictions were rife that the standard, which offers up to a 54Mbit/s data rate, would rapidly pull customers away from 802.11b, which provides a much slower data rate of 11Mbits/s.
Atheros' rollout was soon followed by the announcements of more than 10 IC start-ups that they were entering the 802.11a market. But volume production of these CMOS-based devices has proved more elusive than anticipated, and industry sources say Atheros remains the only supplier to have achieved volume production.
Insufficient yields, due to thecomplexity of the RF components involved in the CMOS process, have prevented 802.11a from becoming cost-competitive with 802.11b, according to analysts. Atheros, for example, is finding it difficult to offer 802.11a chipsets for less than $43, while 802.11b chipsets currently cost $30 a unit and are falling in price, IDC's Furer said.
Also, Intersil Corp. and Agere Systems Inc., which account for more than 90% of all 802.11b chipsets, have well -established customer channels, while Atheros and other 802.11a hopefuls do not, noted Joseph Byrne, a Gartner Dataquest analyst in San Jose.
"If [Intersil and Agere] had 802.11a chipsets, that would help accelerate availability of end-market products," Byrne said. "Instead, we have a situation in which a young company, Atheros, is the only supplier shipping 802.11a products in volume, and they're having to exert a lot of effort to build their channels."
Instead of trying to use their near-monopoly 802.11b position to quickly and decisively move into 802.11a, Intersil and Agere say they are waiting for their customers to demand 802.11a devices.
"We want our customers and their end-use customers not to lose the money they've invested in 802.11b," said Frans Frielink, Wi-Fi product line director of the Networking and Entertainment Division at Agere in Allentown, Pa. "We don't see demand for 802.11a at this time, and we don't expect to enter the market this year."
Interoperability questi ons
Instead, Agere as well as Intersil, Texas Instruments Inc., and others are pushing the 802.11g standard, a hybrid of 802.11a that they say solves the interoperability problem because it communicates with 802.11b at data rates up to 54Mbits/s. The IEEE, however, has yet to ratify 802.11g, a process unlikely to be completed before the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, interoperability issues associated with the few OEM WLAN devices currently in retail channels have slowed 802.11a's acceptance. According to industry sources and analysts, an 802.11a access point produced by one OEM is unlikely to work with a PC card made by a different OEM. And only a small number of OEMs currently have 802.11a products in the retail market that can be tested by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, according to the group's marketing director, C. Brian Grimm.
"We're in the chicken and egg stage. Just because you have a chipset that meets an [IEEE] specification doesn't mean it's interoperable with chipset s from other suppliers," Grimm said. "There are many factors that might make someone's devices not interoperable. You have to test them and make sure they work with other suppliers' devices."
The confusion associated with the various 802.11 standards is analogous to the early days of modem devices, according to Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight64, Saratoga, Calif.
"802.11g is out there, and there's some confusion about the future of a and b. It's similar to before the modem market really took off five years ago," Brookwood said. "Before the V.34 compatibility issues were worked out, there were 56Kbit/s modem standards that were causing problems. But similar to the modem situation and despite the interoperability and other issues, WLAN is clearly happening and is rapidly becoming the preferred way for home networking."