Wooed by Wi-Fi The fastest, newest wireless gear is awfully tempting. But beware: Not all Wi-Fi equipment works well together. Here's a guide to getting through the alphabet soup.
By Peter Lewis

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Setting up a wireless network at home allows everyone in the family--and maybe even your neighbors too!--to share your high-speed Internet connection. No longer tied to a desk, teenagers can use laptops to research homework while sprawling upside-down from the sofa in front of the TV, while Mom, in the kitchen, e-mails them to come to dinner RIGHT NOW!!!

Wireless networks also eliminate unsightly cords. There might be reasons you'd want to drill holes in your walls and run Ethernet cables across your floors, but your spouse would strangle you if the wires didn't. No wonder millions of homeowners are going wireless, not to mention 57% of all U.S. businesses, with another 22% joining in the coming year, according to Jupiter Research.

But which wireless networking protocol should you choose? It's not a simple decision, and there's a risk that consumers eager for a high-wireless act may get caught without a safety net.

Most wireless networks around the world are based on a standard called 802.11b, which has been rebranded as Wi-Fi. Thousands of public "hot spots" around the world are based on 11b, as are millions of Wi-Fi-enabled computers.

Even so, consumers are racing to install the very latest, fastest kind of wireless networking, called 802.11g. Where 11b offers a theoretical top data-transfer speed of 11 megabits per second (Mbps), 11g offers up to 54 Mbps--fast enough for sending HDTV over the network. Here's the catch: Even though nearly every major maker of home-networking equipment is selling 11g-based products today, and even though 11g products are supposed to be compatible with other 11g and 11b devices, there's no guarantee they'll work together. That's because many companies, upon seeing 11b take off, started building 11g devices before the industry's standard-setting group, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, ratified it. The IEEE 11g committee is still considering changes, but hopes to ratify final specs in June.

Apple was the first major PC maker to introduce 11g, just as it was first to bring 11b to market in 1999 with its Airport wireless hub and network card. In January, the company introduced Apple Airport Extreme, which like other 11g products today is based on one of several draft versions of the IEEE specs. I've been using an Airport Extreme base station ($250) with a 12-inch Apple PowerBook laptop equipped with an Airport Extreme card ($99). They work well together now. But will they talk to new equipment?

Apple says it is confident that Airport Extreme products can be upgraded through software patches to comply with the final 11g specs, if necessary. Most other 11g-hardware makers offer similar promises. But being confident isn't the same as an ironclad guarantee.

Another potential headache: When mixing older 11b devices on an 11g network, overall system performance sinks to 11b levels. Conversely, if you take your 11g notebook into an 11b hot spot, you'll still get b-grade connectivity.

Since 11b's speed is generally faster than the average 1.5 Mbps of a home DSL or cable modem hookup, it might not matter. But if you're planning to send streaming video from one room to another, or if you and the kids tease one another by sending giant PowerPoint files to each other's computers, you'll covet the higher data rates.

The new 11g devices operate at 2.4 gigahertz, the same unlicensed spectrum used by 11b as well as by household devices like microwave ovens and some cordless phones. If you already have interference problems with 2.4GHz devices, you'll have problems with 11g.

Got all that? There's more. Another wireless-networking format, called 802.11a, is gaining popularity in businesses and in some homes, despite costing almost twice as much as 11b and 11g products. The 11a standard delivers the same 54Mbps raw speed as 11g--in some cases it is even faster--but operates in the uncrowded 5GHz spectrum.

The problem is that 11a, besides being incompatible with 11b, offers high speed only within a radius of 50 feet. Beyond that, it slows down to 11b speeds. And 11a doesn't penetrate walls or floors well. Also, 11a networks are more complicated to set up.

To make things even harder, several companies are offering 11a/b, 11a/g, and even 11a/b/g combination routers. You'll pay more for these hybrids since they incorporate separate radios. But if you use 11a at work and your kids use 11b at school, getting a hybrid for your house might make sense, assuming one of the kids is studying computer science and can set it up.

Or it might not make sense. That's because a bunch of IEEE committees are already hard at work on future protocols, like 802.11e (better video streaming) and 802.11i (improved security features). A? G? I? E? Ayeee!

Based on my trials with the Airport Extreme, the $130 D-Link AirPlus Xtreme G DI-624 wireless router, and the Linksys WRT54G router ($140), "b" stands for good but "g" stands for better. If you haven't yet chosen a wireless home-networking platform, 11g gets the tentative nod. Upgrade to 11g from 11b? Sure, eventually. But I'd wait until later this year. There are too many uncertainties in the world as it is without creating new opportunities for conflicts.

On the Net: For more tech advice, see Peter Lewis's weblog at www.fortune.com/ontech.

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