We've written many articles about whole-home wireless networking -- using a single wireless network for audio, video, voice and data throughout the home. Of these, video is the most difficult. High-definition video, especially multi-channel HD, needs more bandwidth than existing wireless standards provide.
The IEEE 802.11n standard, in development for several years, promises to provide the key standard that fills in the missing pieces. It provides much higher speeds than the earlier 802.11a and 802.11g standards -- enough to handle several simultaneous channels of high-definition television along with audio, voice and data. It operates in both the crowded 2.4 GHz and uncrowded 5 GHz frequency bands. And it includes MIMO technology to achieve both greater range and higher speeds.
IPTV is a key driving force in the development of these next-generation wireless technologies. As telephone companies move to deploy IPTV over broadband networks to compete with cable companies, they need a way to move the video streams from a home gateway to the TV set. While many technologies are competing to fill this need, next-generation wireless has attracted the bulk of the enthusiasm and investment.
We reported earlier this year on our tests of MIMO-based products based on 802.11g. We found they indeed provided both much greater range and higher speeds, and were encouraged by MIMO's potential as a key factor for whole-home video.
We are now seeing further advancements intended to move the next generation of "whole-home wireless" technology into the marketplace. New MIMO chips from startup Ruckus Wireless are being deployed in Hong Kong to move IPTV around the home. New chips from MetaLink and Marvell promise much higher speeds than possible with 802.11g. And a bombshell announcement by most of the big wireless chip companies suggests these technologies will arrive in the market much sooner than expected -- but very possibly ahead of a formal standard.
Startup Ruckus Wireless recently announced a "Wi-Fi Multimedia System" intended for whole-home networking. Ruckus also announced that PCCW, Hong Kong's primary telecommunications provider, would use products and technology from Ruckus to offer "a complete wireless multimedia solution" for its Netvigator broadband service. This is a significant endorsement, since PCCW has launched IPTV service over Netvigator and will use Ruckus to carry IPTV around the home.
To learn more about Ruckus and its technologies, we interviewed Dave Logan, VP of Product Development. Dave told us the PCCW system achieves reliable wireless transmission of several simultaneous video channels by using a combination of hardware and software technologies. and a wireless traffic management system called SmartCast.
Formed little more than a year ago, and previously known as Video54, Ruckus had earlier licensed its BeamFlex "smart antenna" technology to Netgear for its RangeMax series of MIMO-based routers and network interface cards. BeamFlex is an innovative MIMO design based on multiple antennas and specialized software.
BeamFlex uses multiple antennas in a custom array. Dave told us six antennas are used in the PCCW product (seven in the Netgear RangeMax products). The Ruckus software constantly looks for the best path for communications between a wireless access point and its client devices: "the software selects the best antenna combination for each client device and each packet." It is designed to find a good path even in the presence of interference--especially important in Hong Kong, a densely-populated city with very high penetration of broadband and home networking.
SmartCast is a new Ruckus software technology for traffic management. Applied for the first time in the PCCW system, SmartCast is based on IEEE 802.11e QoS and is specifically designed for a mixed network with video. Ruckus uses a special technique for packet classification and queuing, with each video stream in its own queue. It identifies and manages multicast IP streams used for IP video "to provide a robust wireless transport for IPTV streams from the broadband gateway to the set-top-box".
Ruckus has embedded its technology in a pair of Ruckus-branded products for PCCW: the MF2900 router/access point, and the MF2501 client adapter. Both support 802.11b/g with a software-configurable six-element antenna array and software that integrates Ruckus BeamFlex and SmartCast.
While Ruckus plans to license its technologies to any company that wants to use them in advanced consumer products, Dave said they needed "to build systems today to get to market." He said Ruckus aspires to become "the premier tech provider of digital home enablement technologies--the Dolby of Wi-Fi."
In May and June of this year, Metalink Broadband--an Israeli fabless semiconductor company--announced a pair of chips to implement "a complete solution for wireless multimedia networking." We had followed Metalink as one of the pioneers of ultra-fast VDSL solutions and were not surprised to see them extending their expertise into the home.
In July, we interviewed Ron Cates, Vice President for North American Sales and Marketing, over the telephone to learn more about Metalink's strategy. Ron told us "VDSL providers wanted a solution for home distribution. TVs are not necessarily located where people have phone jacks. They looked at various alternatives (coax, etc) and decided on wireless."
Unlike other chip companies who have primarily focused on extensions to the existing 802.11g standard, Metalink chose to develop an early version of 802.11n--the new standard that will eventually replace 802.11g. In particular, Metalink chose to focus on the 5 GHz spectrum. Ron said others had "targeted applications that one can buy at Fry's and have legacy compatibility with b and g devices. That forces you to operate in the 2.4 GHz band--it's great for backwards compatibility, but inadequate for streaming video in a high-fidelity way." By contrast, he said "5 GHz is cleaner, with lots more places to run and hide."
Metalink has announced two chips to provide a complete solution. The first is a MIMO RF chip providing the front end for a 2x2 MIMO solution in the 5 GHz band, with support for both the existing 802.11a and emerging 802.11n standards. The second is a baseband chip said to be "draft-compliant with the 802.11n evolving standard". Metalink says these two chips together can be used to implement wireless networking for a "broad variety of consumer electronics products including Residential Gateways, DTV, HDTV, Set-Top Boxes, Media Adaptors, Digital Video Recorders (DVR), Portable Display Appliances and Game Consoles."
We asked Ron what Metalink had invented, and he said "Metalink didn't invent any new technology. We implemented those elements that have been openly discussed and were likely to emerge in the final standard--especially those most optimal for our chosen market: video distribution from a PVR-enabled set-top box." The Metalink solution is designed to "optimize data rate and reach. It supports both flavors of Windows MultiMedia (WMM)-HCCA is preferred by the consumer electronics community. It includes a hardware-accelerated encryption engine to support DRM and a MAC aggregation scheme to increase MAC efficiency."
In summary, Ron said "we're one of the first companies trying to do something that's standards friendly and optimized for video delivery." Sample of both chips should be available now, and he predicted we'd see demo products at CES in January.
With the interest in multi-room video heightened by telcos rolling out IPTV, we wondered what other developments were in the works.
Enhanced Wireless Consortium
On October 10, the other shoe dropped. After months of rumors, a new group called the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC) took off the wraps and announced that 27 companies had signed up "to help accelerate the IEEE 802.11n development process and promote a technology specification for interoperability of next-generation wireless local area networking (WLAN) products." It quickly became clear that these companies--including Atheros, Broadcom, Conexant, Intel and Marvell--had been working on this for some time, since they quickly released a joint "interoperability specification".
That evening, we interviewed four EWC representatives in a conference call: Mahesh Venkatraman, Senior Tech Marketing Manager at Marvell; Bill McFarland, CTO at Atheros; Bill Bunch, Director of Product Marketing at Broadcom; and Dave Hedberg, Senior Scientist, Wireless Data Communications at Conexant. They said EWC's objective was to accelerate 802.11n. They had taken the two major competing 802.11n proposals (TGn Sync and WWiSE) and created a "basic interoperability spec" which has now been published on the EWC website.
Their next step will be to take their spec to the Joint Proposal Group established by 802.11n to reconcile the competing specs. If adopted by the Joint Proposal Group, it will be submitted for approval at the November 802.11n meeting; if it receives at least 75% of the vote, the EWC spec will become the "core spec" for 802.11n.
Some observers have pointed out that it seems odd that Airgo, until now the early leader in deploying MIMO technology, was not a part of the EWC group. We asked the EWC group why Airgo was not included and were told that EWC is an open group: "we would like to have more people participating in the process."
Since EWC announced an "interoperability" specification, we asked if EWC was setting itself up to verify interoperability. We were assured that EWC "was not founded to do interoperability testing -- our legal agreement says that once the EWC spec is submitted to the IEEE process, EWC will cease to exist."
On the face of it, this appeared to be an earnest way to speed up the IEEE process, stalled for nearly a year by competing proposals. We asked when chips and products based on the EWC would be available, and were told we'd need to ask individual members.
"Actions Speak Louder Than Words"
The very next day, Marvell--one of the EWC members--announced the 88W8360 family "the first silicon based on the Enhanced Wireless Consortiumís (EWC) recently announced technology specification. ... The Marvell 88W8360 chipset is currently available and Marvell is working closely with key OEMs on related product development." This cast a very different light on the EWC announcement. Clearly the EWC spec is not just a proposal to the Joint Proposal Group, but a spec against which some EWC members have been designing chips for a long time. We won't be surprised to see similar announcements from other EWC members and prototype EWC-based products at CES.
Will the EWC spec be accepted by the Joint Proposal Group and submitted to 802.11n? If so, the EWC spec will indeed form the "core" of 802.11n, and hopefully the standards process will move smoothly and quickly from here.
If not, EWC members appear ready to bring chips to market and OEMs will bring out products based on these chips--thus making EWC the de facto specification for next-generation wireless regardless of the 802.11n deliberations. This scenario smells like an implied threat to 802.11n: "Follow our lead or become irrelevant."
A benign interpretation of these developments is that business customers have been putting pressure on system vendors to provide interoperable high-speed products. 54 Mbps products have been on the market for several years and business customers are looking for higher speeds and improved range. Most consumer products now boast higher speeds than enterprise products, but are based on mutually-incompatible speed-boosting techniques, including several competing flavors of MIMO. One vendor told us he has "seen the level of frustration and disappointment about the pace" of the standards process. So the system vendors have put pressure on the chip makers to accelerate the 802.11n process and EWC is the result.
A more sinister interpretation is that the biggest players in current wireless chips have used this as an opportunity to gang up on Airgo, a disruptive new entrant. For all their words of working to speed up the IEEE process, the immediate availability of chips against a privately-developed "interoperability" specification suggests EWC members may care more about protecting their position than speeding up the standards process. Greg Raleigh, Airgo's CEO, told us "This consortium is delaying the 802.11n process. The only spec that matters is the 802.11n spec. The consumer benefits from an open public process."
In a staff blog on the PC World website ( blogs.pcworld.com/staffblog/archives/000985.html ) Yardena Arar wrote "Since Airgo's technology was widely expected to figure in the 802.11n standard, I get the impression that the Enhanced Wireless Consortium's initiative is more about positioning other Wi-Fi chip vendors, who haven't been able to successfully compete with Airgo's technology, to shut Airgo out of the 802.11n development process, than it is about delivering true benefits to consumers."
The growth of IPTV is creating a near-term need for multi-channel video networking. 802.11n was designed to meet that need. While the open standards process provides a "level playing field" for hammering out specifications, it is often messy and slow, and sometimes fails to complete specifications in time to meet market needs. Sometimes the consumer's interest is best served by moving faster, sometimes by waiting for a more forward-looking spec.
If EWC succeeds in accelerating 802.11n while providing the key technologies for video networking, its efforts will be appreciated by the entire community. If it sacrifices key elements in the interest of higher speeds for enterprise networking and market positioning of its members, it will delay the needed consumer wireless solution--and may open the door wide for the next generation of powerline and coax solutions waiting in the wings.
For more information
( www.ruckuswireless.com ) ( www.netvigator.com/netvigator2003/index_eng.htm ) ( www.metalinkbb.com ) ( www.enhancedwirelessconsortium.org ) ( www.marvell.com ) ( www.atheros.com ) ( www.broadcom.com ) ( www.conexant.com ) ( www.airgo.com )