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802.11n reaches the starting line

Jan 30, 20063 mins
Network SecurityWi-Fi

Last year a group of companies attempted an end run around the IEEE committee developing the next-generation wireless LAN standard, 802.11n. Its goal was to obtain a time-to-market advantage over the one firm that has successfully commercialized the advanced technology central to 802.11n. The industry rebuffed this maneuver.

A quick review of 802.11n is in order. The 802.11n Task Group was established to identify a WLAN technology capable of delivering throughputs well above 100Mbps for such advanced applications as multimedia networking. Virtually everyone agreed that the best choice was multiple input/multiple output (MIMO) orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM), which also delivers significantly greater range and capacity.

Led by chip makers Atheros, Broadcom, Intel and Marvell, the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC) was announced last October and claimed as one of its primary objectives “to accelerate the IEEE 802.11n standard-development process.”

But that claim is belied by the facts. Two competing factions came to dominate the 802.11n Task Group after it was founded in January 2004: TGn Sync and World-Wide Spectrum Efficiency (WWiSE). In May, the TGn Sync group tried but failed to get the 75% majority of votes needed to pass its proposed specification. By July, TGn Sync and WWiSE announced they would work together in a joint proposal group to produce a merged specification. At a meeting in September, the group reported progress and said it was reasonable to expect a complete proposal by November. In October the EWC came forward, ostensibly to help move things along, yet by the close of the November meeting there was still no proposal

It seems reasonable to conclude that the EWC hoped to push through the draft specification it developed in private to give its four founding chip maker members a head start in developing standards-based silicon vis-a-vis Airgo Networks, a firm that has already delivered three generations of MIMO-OFDM chipsets.

But they overlooked one important detail. Other vendors are very interested in the development of an 802.11n standard that will help the market grow and believe this can be accomplished only through a fair and open process. Dell, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung and Texas Instruments were among the companies determined to see important market needs addressed in the specification.

Thus, the EWC was forced to return to the 802.11n joint proposal group and negotiate a compromise. As things stand, the EWC proposal has undergone 24 media access-control layer revisions and 27 physical layer revisions.

To its credit, the Wi-Fi Alliance steadfastly has defended the open standards process, but some chip makers now claim their products are 802.11n-upgradeable, though the standard isn’t complete and interoperability tests are probably a year away. The maneuvering continues.

Standards are crucial to telecom market growth. But we should have no illusions about the standards-setting process. Vendors will always try to manipulate the system for their own advantage. The only way to create a standard to which everyone will adhere is to ensure the process is open and fair.

Ira Brodsky is a Senior Analyst with Datacomm Research. Brodsky focuses on mobile solutions for payments, retail automation, and health care.

Ira Brodsky has authored five books about technology, has researched and published dozens of emerging technology market studies, and wrote the "Totally Unplugged" column for Network World for nearly a decade.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Ira Brodsky and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.

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