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September 8, 1997

RadioLAN PC Card Wireless NIC

If your company has laptop users in highly mobile environments that require access to wireless networks at Ethernet speeds, the RadioLAN PC Card Wireless Interface Node provides a fourfold increase over most other wireless LAN offerings. Although RadioLAN has long offered 10Mbps wireless transceivers, the company has not provided them in PC Card form until now.

Targeted at corporate laptop users who need full mobility, the RadioLAN Type II PC Card adapter fits easily into a laptop and provides full 10Mbps throughput at distances as far as 300 feet. Using this card, users can bring their laptops into the conference room or create short-term functional teams—all the while maintaining Ethernet speed connectivity with the local network without the cabling hassles of Ethernet wiring.

However, RadioLAN's use of a nonstandard narrow-band frequency to provide boosted speeds prevents it from interoperating with wireless products from other vendors.

The unwired network

RadioLAN's products come in two distinct flavors. The Wireless Access Point (WAP) acts as a bridge between a 10Base-T network and the wireless network, providing 10Base-T and wireless connectors on the card, whereas the Wireless Interface Nodes (WINs) provide access to the wireless network through an antennae. WINs talk to the WAP over the radio network, which then transmits the packets over the local Ethernet network.

Currently the WAP comes as an ISA card that can be plugged into a NetWare server, Windows NT server, or a Windows 95 system. The Novell and Windows 32-bit Ethernet drivers are included with the WAP, providing the wireless-to-Ethernet bridge functionality and management services.

The WIN interfaces come either as ISA or in the new PC Card form, allowing users with fixed desktops (using ISA) and laptops (using the PC Card) to have access to the WAP over short-distance radio frequencies. As many as 128 WIN nodes can access a single WAP from as far away as 300 feet.

I had no problems installing either the WAP or the PC Card WIN in my tests, although I didn't like having to place the WAP into an ISA slot. RadioLAN officials said that a stand-alone WAP should be available in the fall that will plug directly into a 10Base-T hub without requiring a PC for the service.

I found the PC Card WIN adapter to be easy to configure and use, with no noticeable performance problems. But I did not like the antennae's construction: The two-pronged, bulky design was hard to balance on anything but a level surface, and the short antennae cable made it hard to reach from the laptop stand to the desktop monitor.

However, the WIN does come with Velcro strips that can be used to secure the antennae to the laptop's monitor casing, although I didn't use this for my short-term testing. Long-term users should not have these concerns.

Wireless standards limitations

RadioLAN achieves its performance by using a 5.8-GHz narrow-band frequency reserved by the Federal Communications Commission for use in Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure technologies, whereas most wireless networking vendors, such as Proxim and Breeze Wireless Communications, use the 2.4-GHz spread-spectrum frequencies defined by the IEEE 802.11 specification.

Although the 802.11 specification does not allow for the high speeds offered by RadioLAN, the fact that several vendors offer 802.11-compliant products allows customers to mix and match products from those vendors as needed. Because RadioLAN uses nonstandard frequencies, customers cannot use products from other vendors on their RadioLAN networks.

However, RadioLAN officials have stated that they are contributing to a new, high-speed 802.11 specification with which RadioLAN products will interoperate. This will eventually allow users to integrate future RadioLAN products into multivendor solutions.

Priced at $495, the RadioLAN PC Card Wireless Interface Node is more expensive than standard Ethernet PC Cards. However, it is cheaper than several other wireless laptop solutions, and it provides the flexibility that many users now require.

For laptop users seeking full connectivity and mobility, RadioLAN offers exceptional performance and flexibility. It provides 10Mbps access to the same network resources as a wired connection, though it is a proprietary solution.

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Copyright © 2010-2017 Eric A. Hall.
Portions copyright © 1997 InfoWorld Media Group, Inc. Used with permission.