Standardising a world without wires

Wireless networking standards will play a critical role in Internet access in the near future.

Published in APC,
March 2001

What are these 802.1 standards I'm reading about?

The 802.1 family of standards was developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which has been responsible for helping develop many key standards such as Ethernet for corporate networks. These standards allow PCs and other electronic equipment to be interoperable. The IEEE has more than 340,000 members in 150 countries, so it has a much better chance of developing open standards than individual companies (although the IEEE sometimes draws on such work). With interest in wireless networking technologies continuing to grow, the IEEE's wireless initiatives are attracting a lot of attention.

What do all the different numbers mean?

There are three main wireless working groups within the IEEE. Each focuses on a different series of standards that cover aspects of wireless technology. Each standard (or more accurately, group of standards) produced by the IEEE is identified by a number. The 802.1 'family' covers wireless networking.

Probably the best known is the 802.11 group, which works on standards for wireless local area networks (LANs). The IEEE describes the 802.11 standard as comparable to the IEEE 802.3 standard for Ethernet for wired LANs. Standards developed by the 802.11 group were first ratified in November 1999, and now underlie many of the commercially available products for small or home office networks. For example, they're used in the AirPort range of equipment included with all new Macs. The 802.11 standards cover direct interaction between wireless devices, and between base stations and the machines connected to them.

The 802.15 group is likely to receive increased attention in the coming months as more manufacturers introduce domestic wireless products. The 802.15 group focuses on wireless personal area networks, which are designed to consume lower amounts of power and be less complex to administer than those using 802.11. This will be a highly competitive segment of the market.

The third wireless working group focuses on the 802.16, examining standards for broadband wireless initiatives. Very few formal standards have been proposed by the group so far, which perhaps reflects the relatively slow uptake of broadband systems (wireless or otherwise) in many markets. However, a number of standards initiatives by the 802.16 group are expected to reach fruition in the next few months.

How does this relate to Bluetooth, HomeRF and other wireless standards?

Bluetooth is a specification for building and interconnecting low-cost wireless devices in homes and offices. It was spearheaded by nine major IT and communications companies (3Com, Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Lucent, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia and Toshiba). With so many high-powered backers, Bluetooth (which has more than 2,000 members in its associated special interest group) has received a lot of publicity, even though the first products are only just hitting the market.

HomeRF has a narrower focus, aiming exclusively at simple systems for interconnecting conventional PCs in the home. It was developed using a similar structure to Bluetooth, with six promoter companies (Compaq, Intel, Motorola, National Semiconductor, Proxim and Siemens) and support from about 75 more. Backers of the standard claim it has a dominant share of the market, but as Bluetooth and 802.11 products become more widespread, its limited usefulness in enterprise environments may see that share drop .

Bluetooth and HomeRF are driven by commercial considerations and don't involve the same degree of formal ratification as IEEE standards. This situation is often referred to as de facto standardisation, where standards are imposed by market forces rather than consensus. This makes them riskier to adopt, but it means they're commercialised more quickly.

The relationship between these standards and the IEEE is complex. The 802.15 group has openly acknowledged the importance of Bluetooth, and wants to develop interoperability between the two specifications. However, as Bluetooth devices have the potential to interfere with the signals transmitted by devices using 802.11 and 802.15 standards, it's not yet clear whether they'll be able to coexist. Backers of HomeRF have been involved in similar battles over potential frequency interference between HomeRF products and other devices.

What's the practical use of all this stuff?

Regardless of which standards ultimately prevail, wireless equipment will play an increasingly important role in technology. As well as replacing traditional cabled networks in offices with wireless networking cards connecting to base stations, wireless systems could be used for everything from authenticating passengers on flights to allowing interactive gaming between children in different rooms in the same house.

Wireless networking equipment is also being trialled by ISPs that provide access to suitably equipped PCs within a defined (and usually quite small) area. One issue with these systems is pricing; as anyone within range of a base station can connect up, policing traffic may be difficult. Security is also an issue, but encryption will play an important role here.