Europe's Wireless Wakeup Call

The time has come for European regulatory authorities to get off the fence on the 802.11a standard from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE). Unless they get a move on and adopt the standard, the deployment of low-cost broadband wireless services could be seriously delayed – and this could have a serious impact on the growth of the European mobile market.

The problem is that the Europeans – naturally – don't like the idea of adopting technology that comes from the U.S. They would prefer to use their own, homegrown specification, HiperLAN, in an effort to support indigenous equipment manufacturers. But, basically, that battle has already been fought and lost. The development of HiperLAN has fallen behind that of IEEE 802.11. Major HiperLAN supporter Ericsson AB has dumped it in favor of the IEEE standard.

It's time to move on.

This issue cropped up last week in what appears to be a bit of a breakthrough. A U.K. government agency recommended that commercial wireless Internet access services – such as “hotspots” in hotels or airports – be allowed over both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. If, as is widely expected, these proposals are accepted, Britain will become one of the more liberal countries in Europe as regards commercial wireless LAN (WLAN) communications.

That's quite a turnaround. Right now, the U.K. is the only country in Europe (apart from the ever-forward-looking Albania) that bans (yes, bans!) commercial services over the 2.4GHz spectrum. This means that service providers can not create 802.11b wireless or Bluetooth public access hotspots (although companies may create their own wireless networks for internal use).

The IEEE 802.11b standard (WiFi) is the most widely accepted wireless LAN technology in the world. It runs over the 2.4GHz band and offers a maximum data transfer rate of 11 Mbit/s. IEEE 802.11a technology is widely expected to supersede 802.11b this year for applications that require higher transfer speeds. The 802.11a standard runs over the 5GHz band and delivers data packets at speeds of up to 54 Mbit/s. (For more on IEEE 802.11 standards, click here.)

On the face of it, this British report looks like good news for companies that make chips, cards, and access equipment that support the newer 802.11a standard – such as Agere Systems Inc, Atheros Communications Inc, Intel Corp, and Synad Ltd. These companies are just starting to deliver 802.11a equipment, and the U.K. is potentially an attractive market.

Yet all the glitters is not gold. Although governments might open up the 5GHz band, regulators must also the approve the 802.11a standard for use over the 5.4Ghz band, and this is no foregone conclusion. The UK Radiocommunications Agency office was not able to find anyone who could tell Unstrung whether 802.11a equipment will be allowed under the new proposals.

“It will allow commercial exploitation of the 5Ghz band, but whether that equipment will be illegal is another question,” notes Andy Buss, an analyst at Canalys, a market research company. It is possible, according to Buss, that 802.11a equipment may have to be licensed on a case-by-case basis. However, he thinks it unlikely that European regulators will go against what an individual country says it wants to do vis-à-vis commercial wireless LAN services.

This could certainly put a damper on the possible market for 802.11a equipment in Europe, as a vendor may find 5GHz kit, welcomed in one country, is banned across the border. Buss feels it could take one, two, even three years for 5GHz services to become commonplace across Europe. It is even possible that different countries could approve different technologies for 5GHz services. All of this could make life more difficult for vendors trying to sell WLAN equipment into Europe.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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