Next-gen Wi-Fi closer to ratification

10 Mar 2006

The next-gen version of Wi-Fi - 802.11n - is on track to a final standard following the IEEE's long-awaited adoption of a draft proposal for MIMO-enabled Wi-Fi in late January. The final ratified standard still isn't due until at least the end of this year, but the draft proposal is a landmark deal of sorts since rival players had been deadlocked for several years in hammering out a standard.

The standardization drive for 802.11n - which essentially adds better coverage and theoretical data rates as high as 600 Mbps to the Wi-Fi mix via technologies like OFDM and MIMO - became bogged down as technology players split into rival camps. Some supported TGn Sync, while others supported WWiSE, and upstart chipset vendor AirGo, which released its third-generation prestandard Wi-Fi MIMO chipset for sampling in September last year, challenged everyone. The TGn Sync and WWISE groups eventually joined forces under the TGn Joint Proposal group, only for a breakaway group calling itself the Enhanced Wireless Consortium, to submit its own counterproposal.

After seemingly endless debate and not a little sniping in the press, the EWC's proposal was deemed close enough to the TGn Joint Proposal to allow the differences to be resolved. The draft proposal is essentially the EWC proposal with a handful of extra features addressing issues such as reliability of data transmissions (via technologies like beamforming and space-time block coding) and power management for handheld devices.

Even though the draft proposal is welcome news for both suppliers and potential customers, analyst reactions have ranged from optimistic to cautious.

Greg Collins, senior director of wireless LAN research at Dell'Oro Group, said the draft standard was sorely needed.

'In recent quarters the consumer market for WLAN equipment has stagnated, because 802.11g-based products have been in the market for three years, and consumers have not seen a cost-benefit to upgrading to 802.11a,' Collins said.

Wait for 2007: Gartner

Unsurprisingly, some suppliers pounced on the acceptance of the draft proposal almost immediately. Atheros Communications, Broadcom and Marvell have already announced 'draft-compliant' 802.11n chipsets. However, Sam Lucero, senior analyst of wireless connectivity research at ABI Research, says anything based on the draft proposal is more likely to be targeted at consumers, not the enterprise space.

'We believe that enterprise IT managers will not purchase equipment until the standard is actually ratified,' Lucero said.

Analyst firm Gartner put it more strongly, recommending in a report that IT managers to stay away from all things 11n for at least the next year, saying draft-based products were 'misleading' because the technology is likely to change again before the final standard is ratified.

Also, Gartner pointed out, 802.11a/b/g is far from obsolete and still has plenty of legs.

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