LONDON Prospects for a harmonized global wireless LAN standard appear bleak, as political and legal barriers emerge in Europe and Japan to block adoption of the IEEE-802.11a WLAN specification, backed robustly in the United States. Indeed, some 802.11a supporters are coming to accept a three-standard world, with its echoes of the third-generation (3G) mobile communications standardization process at least in the short term.
In Europe, the locally developed standard for the unlicensed spectrum between 5 and 6 GHz is HiperLAN-2. In addition, many national regulators have not yet opened up the spectrum for the use of wireless LANs at all. In Japan, similar blocks could stall that country's 5-GHz standard, known as HisWANa.
"It looks like HiperLAN-2 is going to be a European-only thing," said Mike Baker chief executive officer of Synad Technologies Ltd. (Reading, England), a startup focused on wireless-networking chip sets. "The trouble is that 802.11a systems are here now. HiperLAN-2 has lost the lead. You can't go out and buy HiperLAN."
In the medium term, hope remains that 802.11a's first-mover advantage can build enough commercial momentum to make its introduction into Europe and elsewhere unstoppable. Beyond that, the first steps are being taken to create a global wireless LAN with a top speed of more than 100 Mbits/second.
But despite 802.11a's initial success, there are now moves to align the U.S. 5-GHz spectrum allocation with Europe's as part of worldwide moves toward global harmonization of spectrum.
The Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), an industry body for 802.11 wireless LANs, has formed a 5-GHz spectrum committee to propose new allocation to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), although one of WECA's goals remains to get the 802.11a standard accepted worldwide.
"The band from 5.470 to 5.725 GHz is not allocated to WLAN in the United States, but we've already started talking to the NTIA," said Vic Hayes, a senior consultant with Agere Systems and chairman of WECA's 5-GHz spectrum committee.
The hope is that the U.S. spectrum harmonization can be agreed on in time for the World Radio Conference in 2003.
A globally harmonized spectrum allocation at 5 GHz could help 802.11a's worldwide prospects and provide a platform for a next-generation WLAN.
But after a year of lobbying relevant standards bodies to produce a single global standard, the 5-GHz Wireless LAN Industry Advisory Group, formed by Microsoft, Intel and Compaq, appears to have accepted that, as with 3G, different regional standards will be the norm for now.
In Europe, the 5-GHz band, where 802.11a operates, is regulated by the European Radiocommunications Committee. It requires that the systems use transmit power control (TPC) and dynamic frequency selection (DFS) technologies and that the systems be standardized by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute.
DFS and TPC guard satellite uplinks and radar systems from interference by wireless LANs. Satellite uplinks and a multitude of radar types are the incumbent and primary 5-GHz users.
The IEEE-802.11 group is working to add a DFS and TPC layer to the 802.11a standard.
A spokeswoman for the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) said it has no plans now to produce a standard that allows IEEE 802.11a to be deployed in Europe.
"Standardization work is voluntary in ETSI," she said. "It has to be initiated by the members. Simply, there have been no initiatives to perform such work."
While HiperLAN-2's orthogonal frequency-division multiplex modulation is almost identical to 802.11a's, its media-access control (MAC) layer is different. Where HiperLAN's is more ATM-like, 802.11a's MAC has more in common with Ethernet.
HiperLAN supporters in Europe insist HiperLAN-2's quality-of-service guarantees and deterministic transport provide better support for streaming media and interactive apps.
Still, 802.11a chip sets are becoming available now and proponents of HiperLAN-2 are facing European national bodies not yet ready to finalize the regulations to allow any 5-GHz wireless LANs to be deployed.
"HiperLAN-2 is lagging behind," said Martin Johnsson, chairman of the HiperLAN-2 Global Forum. "In North America they have spectrum already available. But here in Europe it has to be mandated by different national regulators."
A number of Europe's regulators await the results of investigations by the United Kingdom's Radiocommunications Agency into the coexistence of wireless LANs with radar in the same band.
Referring to commercially driven U.S. standardization and the highly regulated European counterpart, Johnsson said, "The general rule is that in the United States, nothing matters and anything goes, but in Europe everything matters and nothing goes." But Johnsson said he still expects HiperLAN products next year.
"The radar is allowed to be there and we have to work around them. There are issues such as how quickly does a wireless LAN have to move out of the way," said Andy Gowans, a senior engineer with the U.K. Radiocommunications Agency. "We are trying to negotiate with the various radar users to insert test signals." These could be used, he said, to tell a wireless LAN to move off the band and use other frequencies. "We're fairly confident we know what radars are out there," Gowans said. He said experts will meet in October to make proposals that could take six months to be approved.
But no one will speculate when national regulations will be in place Europe-wide to allow the deployment of HiperLAN-2. "We've sent out an e-mail asking that. We're trying to get more information on the status in various countries," said Johnsson of the HiperLAN Global Forum.
Intel Corp. said it will bring products based on 802.11a to market this year. The 5-GHz Wireless LAN Industry Advisory Group initiated by Microsoft, Intel and Compaq had pushed for a single 5-GHz WLAN standard in late 2000 and early 2001, said Evan Green, a senior staff engineer within the Intel Communications Architecture Group. But Green said there was concern that trying to converge the 802.11a and HiperLAN-2 standards quickly would effectively create a third standard, confusing and inhibiting the market.
Green said the advisory group also hopes to create a next-generation wireless LAN through a global partnership. At the same time, the group wanted to enhance 802.11a to give it a chance to deploy in Europe. Adding DFS and TPC is necessary but not necessarily sufficient to gain European acceptance, he said.
Meanwhile, Japanese manufacturers have started using the 802.11b wireless LAN, which operates at 2.4 GHz, for consumer products. "It enables 11-Mbit/s communication, and at present no other alternative is viable," said an engineer with Sharp Corp. "But as a matter of course, we are considering the possibility of the 5-GHz band."
To meet demand for higher-speed wireless communication technologies, Japan's Multimedia Mobile Access Communication promotion council gathers manufacturers, carriers and others to draft standards. The standardization of 5- and 60-GHz bands has been completed.
Meanwhile, many European chip companies are developing 802.11a rather than HiperLAN-2 products. Cambridge Silicon Radio Ltd. (Cambridge, England) is preparing an 802.11a single-chip solution.
"This move by Intel bringing 802.11a products to market is significant. It could curtail the market for 802.11b wireless LANs," said Glenn Collinson, marketing director and co-founder of Cambridge Silicon Radio.
But Collinson called 802.11a inferior to HiperLAN-2 for streaming data. "IEEE 802.11a is good enough as a basic wireless LAN, and then I see companies adding a proprietary quality-of-service layer."
Additional reporting by Yoshiko Hara.