With the standard for the next generation of wireless equipment finally due to be ratified next month, the confusing nature of the market has come to the forefront again.
Recent press coverage has speculated that the standard for 802.11g is to be "downgraded" to run at a slower speed in order to make it compatible with the 802.11b equipment that is most commonly used at the moment.
While this speculation misunderstands the reality of the situation, it is an understandable mistake given the complicated situation with different wireless protocols.
There are three protocols that enable high-speed data exchange between a wireless box and any computer in close proximity that has the appropriate chipset - 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g. We'll refer to them as A, B and G.
B is the oldest protocol and as such is the most widely used at the moment. A large infrastructure of B devices exists already. B works by sending data at 2.4GHz, which is a frequency band also used by many other devices. It has a raw data speed of 11Mbit/s.
A does exactly the same job as B but it does it at a higher frequency of 5GHz. It can sent data faster than B - a raw data speed of 54Mbit/s. There is also less interference as fewer devices use this frequency band. However, because it is at a higher frequency, the range that the wireless box can offer is smaller, so you need to be nearer the box to be able to connect to it. Equipment using A is also more expensive. All this means that only big companies tend to use A.
G is what people are excited about however. G works at the same frequency as B but it offers the same higher raw data speed of A (54Mbit/s). This means faster, cheaper wireless access. Also, because it works at the same frequency as B, it can be made compatible with all the equipment that is already out there.
However, the standard for G has yet to be properly approved by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Various delays have meant that it may finally be ratified in June. Then, from July, tests will be able to say which products are G-compliant.
Having G-compliant equipment is essential if the technology is to take off. But the delay in the approval of the standard as things were chopped and changed has meant many goods have already been put onto the market to steal a march. Possibly most successful of these has been Broadcom. However, Broadcom's chipset has an irritating habit that the standard-makers say won't happen with a properly implemented G-system: it works fine but as soon as equipment using the B protocol makes contact, it slows down to 11Mbit/s.
Under the G standard due to be approved soon, various clever methods are used to avoid this slowing down.
However, the fundamental thing to understand whenever you are talking about wireless systems is the difference between the raw data speed (11Mbit/s for B; 54Mbit/s for A and G) and the actual, real data transfer you get between your laptop and the box. As Guy Kewney, the editor of NewsWireless.net explained, the key term is "payload".
"Raw data rates are about as accurate as the miles-per-gallon figures that car manufacturer's put out. That it to say that the 11b signal will never, ever run at 11Mbit/s. If you are lucky you will get something close to 4Mbit/s. But if another user enters, that goes down to half the amount, just as with an Ethernet."
Likewise, he explains, the A and G system, despite a raw data speed of 54Mbit/s will "never run faster than, say, 22Mbit/s". In each case, the real data rate that you get is called the "payload".
However, if you look at the different payloads, G is still around five times faster than B and so it is easy to see why there is so much demand for the new systems. You should also bear in mind that broadband connections tend to give you 512Kbit/s. US Robotics now claims to have a product that gives 50 users within a 30-foot radius 512Kbit/s each. This is very likely true, says Guy Kewney, although he warns it may well be an average over 24 hours including the times when very few people are using the system.
The recent confusion over the G standard being "downgraded" has come from the recent WLAN show in London where one system was proudly displayed as cutting-edge. This system contained laptops using both the B and the G standard but the overall payload was between 15 and 20Kbit/s.
What this was celebrating was that the G standard is able to work with the B standard as well - but that the entry of B equipment doesn't slow it down. However, this was mistakenly seen as the exact opposite and since the equipment was "supposed" to run at 54Mbit/s, the G standard had it fact been "downgraded" to enable G to work with B devices. Which is, of course, not true.
And if all that is finally clear, you will be pleased to know that several companies already claim to have found ways to have doubled and even tripled the G payload using non-standard techniques. But that confusion is still to come.