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January 31, 2006 Provided by System Dynamics Inc.

802.11n--Next-Generation Wi-Fi Back On Track

In Wireless Video Networking - Ruckus, Metalink and EWC ( ) a few months ago, we reported on the formation of the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC), and mused on whether this would be good or bad for the resolution of the industry conflicts delaying the draft standard for 802.11n, the next generation of Wi-Fi.

The jury is now in: the IEEE task group is working toward a draft, and EWC appears to have played a role in moving the process back on track. But consumer confusion may be brewing as industry players start positioning "draft" devices before any draft has been agreed to.

At CES, we met with several players in 802.11n, including the leadership of EWC and the Wi-Fi Alliance. In summary, we were told that

  • All the key players in 802.11n, both those included in EWC and those on the outside, had agreed to hammer out a joint proposal prior to the upcoming IEEE meeting, with the expectation that it would be accepted as the basis for a draft proposal. This would presumably put an end to further effort on a separate EWC specification.
  • Many members of EWC had developed chips in compliance with the EWC specifications and were preparing to bring them to market early in 2006.
  • The Wi-Fi Alliance had made it clear that it would not endorse or certify next-generation products other than those based on the 802.11n standard. WFA intends to "fast track" the certification process, with the goal of having the first certified products on the market shortly after completion of the 802.11n specifications.

As expected, at its mid-January meeting IEEE 802.11 task group n voted unanimously to confirm the joint proposal and put it into draft format. This appears to put 802.11n back on track toward a final specification in mid-2007.

Wi-Fi has become a big business, and 802.11n is expected to make it bigger yet. Many companies are trying to position themselves to get a piece of the pie. Each is trying to position its intellectual property as part of 802.11n so it can gain an edge on the competition.

Hammering out the joint proposal for the IEEE vote seems to have included some compromises on which features would be required and which would be optional. There will be many comments and votes between the first draft and the final version of 802.11n, and some early options may become required. WFA may decide to require some remaining options as part of its certification process.

Several members of EWC have announced chips "conforming" with the EWC specifications and implying that they are therefore conforming to a IEEE draft. EWC positioned the IEEE as "accepting" the EWC specification, but we understand the final EWC specification differed in significant ways from earlier drafts. The IEEE has just started to create a draft specification, the first step in a long process of ballots, comments and redrafts.

As consumer products based on these chips come to market, we suspect many will be positioned as "pre n" or "draft n". It seems unlikely that any of these early devices will be capable of complying with the full 802.11n specification. It is also unlikely that these devices will have been tested for interoperability. Devices with identical chips from the same chip maker are likely to interoperate, but different maker's chips probably won't.

As 802.11n drafts move toward the final ballot stages, chip and device vendors will be more confident that devices can be upgraded to final 11n status. At that point they should be willing to guarantee--as some did with "draft 11g" products a few years ago--that they will replace any product that can't be upgraded to comply with the final specification.

This is not to say consumers shouldn't buy these early products--our tests of the Belkin products based on Airgo's early chips suggest the gain in speed and range may well be worth it. But consumers may be unpleasantly surprised if they try to mix and match different products.