Worldwide WLAN equipment revenue dipped slightly in 1Q09 because of the weakened economy, according to In-Stat. Nonetheless, 802.11 chipset sales are expected to more than double in 2010, driven by wireless notebooks and mobile handsets. In fact, handset volume spiked 51% in 2008 and will represent 20% of the entire market by 2010.
"[Furthermore] 802.11n chipset revenue will surpass that of 802.11g this year as a result of higher average selling prices (ASPs)," said In-Stat analyst Victoria Fodale. "ASPs for draft 802.11n chipsets are complex, as there are more options that can impact prices. These options include support for the 5 GHz spectrum and the number of data streams."
For WLAN solutions providers, these market projections pose both threat and opportunity. Those providers that sell or install legacy WLAN hardware are being pinched by belt-tightening. However, providers that can help customers sort through confusing 802.11n options, design optimized 802.11n networks, and roll out new 802.11n clients – especially handsets – are well-positioned to capitalize on emerging market demands.
Do your homework on 802.11n benefits
What must WLAN solutions providers do to help customers upgrade to 802.11n? First, staff must become familiar with the innovations introduced by 802.11n and (more importantly) where, why and how those advances can benefit business networks.
802.11n is a high-throughput standard engineered to increase top data rates from 54 Mbps (802.11a/g) to 600 Mbps (802.11n). Customers will never see 600 Mbps of application throughput, however. Like 802.11a/g, 802.11n throughput is affected by overhead, distance, and signal strength. But 802.11n is also greatly affected by the number of access point (AP) and client antennas, how antennas are configured to send and receive diverse or redundant spatial streams, advanced options like space-time block coding and frame aggregation, and each venue's unique radio frequency propagation characteristics.
Providers can help customers by setting realistic throughput, capacity, and distance expectations, making appropriate product/feature selections, and optimizing WLAN configurations. In particular, providers can battle spec sheet confusion by offering apples-to-apples comparison between 802.11n APs and clients, focusing on the capabilities and options that each customer really needs, to identify compatible pairings and limitations. For example, customers should understand that today's 802.11n APs usually have more antennas than 802.11n clients do, making uplinks faster than most downlinks.
Plan for business application demands that affect WLANs
While some customer applications (like streamed audio and video) can capitalize on higher throughput, many more will benefit from 802.11n's increased reach and reliability. Providers that understand common business application demands can help customers get the most from their WLAN investments.
For example, customers looking to run voice over WLAN usually need to augment or replace legacy APs with new APs that are positioned more densely for gap-free coverage. But placing APs too close can cause clients to roam too frequently or too reluctantly, wreaking havoc on voice calls. Furthermore, voice and data requirements tend to be vastly different, making it tough to lay out APs in an intuitive grid that will satisfy both. In fact, with 802.11n, positioning based on signal strength is no longer necessarily best.
Fortunately, WLAN design tools can help. Contemporary tools can plot overlapping coverage areas to meet multiple application demands, applying enterprise WLAN techniques like WMM priorities and virtual APs (i.e., carving up the capacity of each physical AP into several SSIDs). New predictive planning and site survey tools even understand 802.11n and how performance is affected by use/non-use of options. Such tools have become increasingly essential, but many customers still consider them too pricey and complicated to use solo. This is a "perfect storm" for WLAN solutions providers that wish to leverage their investment in expert tools and training.
Look beyond the horizon for wireless business opportunities
For many businesses, 802.11n represents a turning point whereby WLANs are considered mature enough to deliver primary network access and first-tier backhaul. Solutions providers that look at 802.11n as a chance to sell bigger switches and APs may reap near-term revenue but miss out on bigger long-term opportunities.
Solutions providers can facilitate this transition by helping develop coexistence and migration strategies. Early on, providers can find and fix interoperability culprits, such as option mismatches and disabled protection mechanisms. Providers can use 802.11n analysis and test tools to master service-affecting changes like drag introduced by new but still relatively slow handheld clients. As WLANs expand and mature, these trusted advisers will be positioned to suggest further "unwired business" opportunities like location-aware applications and mobile unified communication. While providers may still supply network plumbing, they can earn more revenue by delivering the expert professional services, training and tools needed to navigate uncharted waters.
Lisa Phifer is president of Core Competence Inc., a consulting firm specializing in network security and management technology. For nearly 20 years, she has been involved in the design, implementation and evaluation of data communications, internetworking, security and network management products.