Europe Reaches Wireless LAN Milestone

While regulators in Europe shilly-shally over approving the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE)'s 802.11a standard for high-speed wireless LANs, Philips Electronics NV has managed to score a first by getting its 802.11a card approved for sale thoughout the continent.

The approval -- in the form of a “CE” (Conformité Européène) kite mark -- means that Philips's card meets European Union health and safety regulations. 802.11a is considered by many to be the successor to the very popular 802.11b specification. Unlike b, a runs over the 5GHz band and offers higher data transfer speeds of up to 54 Mbit/s. 802.11a products are now on sale in the U.S. but haven't got a foothold in Europe until now because the standard hasn't been approved.

Philips's card is using an 802.11a chipset developed by California startup Atheros Communications. Atheros has implemented some of the additions to the 5GHz specification required by European regulators, such as Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS), Transmit Power Control (TPC), and Quality of Service (QOS) capabilities.

DFS is a key addition to the specification if 802.11a is to become a worldwide standard, because it enables the chipset to automatically tune its radio to a specific slice of the 5GHz band. In Europe, there is spectrum available for wireless LAN services between 5.15 GHz and 5.35 GHz and between 5.475GHz and 5.712GHz. With DFS, the user does not have to manually select the frequency they want to use if they move between different countries.

Atheros has implemented these additions to its 802.11a chipset in the second generation of its silicon, which is sampling now and due out in volume in the second quarter of this year. The company says that it has also been working with vendors that want to add DFS and TPC features to first-generation chipsets.

The hope is that it will now be easier for other vendors using Atheros technology to get European approval for their products. Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), which is using Atheros’s silicon, has been vocal about its desire to sell 802.11a products in Europe. Atheros says that it's also working with other as yet unnamed vendors to develop products for the European market. However, even using Atheros technology is not a cast-iron guarantee that an 802.11a card will be approved. "Each product is approved on a case-by-case basis,” notes a company spokesperson.

In any case, it certainly appears that, at the moment, it may be faster for individual vendors to work directly with the regulators to get the green light for their products, rather than waiting for a standard to be battened down. The IEEE has developed a version of the 802.11a standard that addresses European concerns, including QOS, DFS, and TPC capabilities. The specification is called 802.11h, and it is still at the approval stage: It could be a year before it's stable enough to be implemented in hardware.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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