A heated topic in the wireless LAN industry surrounds the pricing of 802.11 access points (APs) - one of several components in your total cost of ownership equation.

At the Wi-Fi Planet show in December, Eric Janszen, the CEO of wireless security gateway-maker Bluesocket (see our review of Bluseocket's wireless gateway), looked me in the eye and stated, "Enterprise-class access points will cost $50 in 12 to 18 months."

His $50 prediction is, admittedly, bullish, although Bluesocket is teaming with low-end AP maker Netgear. Today, enterprise-class access points range widely in price, from $239 to about $1,100, depending on a slew of factors, including whether the device is "lightweight" or "traditional" (the difference being how much, if any, software intelligence resides in it).

Still, this same subject also came up during a vendor panel session I conducted on WLAN architectures at Comdex last November.

Albert Lew, director of product management at lightweight access point-maker Legra Systems (which arrived in Europe in November), pointed out that original design manufacturers (ODMs) in Taiwan are now building access points in volume for the majority of WLAN vendors. And a good percentage of these products use Atheros chipsets, which include many of the features that once had to be designed in by vendors.

Prices should theoretically fall as volume production for the 802.11 access point industry ramps up and as chipsets alleviate the software design burden for some enterprise-class features. (Note: Legra doesn't break out its component pricing, so we don't know what its access point costs.)

Of course, makers of traditional APs on the panel - Cisco and Proxim - bolted out of their chairs to assert that low-cost APs are not "enterprise-class," in that they don't have the processing power and range that the pricier products do.

However, that situation is changing, asserts Paul Callahan, vice president of marketing and business development at Propagate Networks, which makes component software for access points that helps them self-adjust to fluctuating RF conditions (Propagate is also part of Bluesocket's low-cost enterprise Wi-Fi team).

Historically, enterprise AP software has been "bulkier" than consumer-grade AP software because additional features are required for business-class products.

"So you often had to put another processor alongside the embedded processor in the chipset to get the computing power needed to run these features," Callahan notes. "But this is less and less true - embedded processors now in chips are getting strong enough so you don't need another processor alongside it."

Most makers of 802.11 access points - with the notable exception of Cisco and Enterasys - use Atheros chipsets. So at some point, the AP capital-expenditure portion of the TCO equation should come down at least for the products volume-manufactured by ODMs and using Atheros chipsets.

Depending on how many access points you eventually install, the price of each of these devices is one important piece of the TCO puzzle to consider. Although lightweight access point vendors claim that cost is not an issue, the price of APs will be crucial this year.