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Intel-led fast Wi-Fi group menaces IEEE

Enhanced Wireless Consortium revs up

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A month ago, Intel and three other chipmakers formed a breakaway group to develop their own specification for fast Wi-Fi, just as it seemed that the two factions warring to produce the official IEEE 802.11n standard in this area were approaching a truce.

Those consortia, TGn Sync and WWise, claim to be close to arriving at a merged proposal, only to see the new group’s numbers swollen to 27. Under the name Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC), the rogue faction looks set to bypass the IEEE process in the same way that another Intel-inspired body, WiMedia Alliance, has done in short range wireless standards.

The original founders of EWC were Intel, Atheros, Broadcom and Marvell. The new line-up also includes another WLan chipmaker, Conexant; plus all the largest consumer Wi-Fi equipment makers – Cisco/Linksys, D-Link, Buffalo, Netgear, 3Com, Symbol and US Robotics; consumer electronics/PC giants Sony, Toshiba, Apple and Lenovo; and others.

The enlarged group looks fairly unassailable in terms of control of the WLAN market, especially as 802.11n increasingly becomes a technology for in-home digital networks rather than conventional access. With an eye on applications such as distribution of high definition TV around a house, the EWC says it would push Wi-Fi speed up as high as 600Mbps in a short timescale, leaping ahead of 802.11n targets of around 150Mbps in the first generation.

Rose-tinted specs

It also claims to have a specification ready and waiting, ahead of the converged proposal promised by the two IEEE-focused groups, although with probably a few weeks in it, the claims to be speeding up the progress to 802.11n are somewhat hollow.

As in the UltraWideBand saga, the action may accelerate standards development by circumventing the IEEE’s cumbersome and feudsusceptible processes. But it also shifts the networking industry away from true open standards to a model more familiar in consumer electronics- the key growth market, of course, for fast Wi-Fi and UWB - where powerful companies reach consensus around a technology and create a de facto standard, that is then subsequently ratified by an international body, almost as a fait accompli.

This approach was taken by the WiMedia Alliance, when its proposal – based on UltraWideBand and OFDM - failed to gain the 75 per cent majority needed to become the basis of the IEEE 802.15.3a standard for short range, high data rate networks. It then created its own alternative platform, which will be ratified by the ECMA standards body, a group that boasts a fast track process far less open to political schisms than the IEEE’s.

There are many echoes of that situation in the new move by EWC, although the justifications are less obvious. In 802.15.3a, very new concepts were being put forward, in 802.11n, it will be essential that compatibility with the well established Wi-Fi standards is maintained, and so there is less logic to starting afresh outside the IEEE.

It is hard to argue against the notion that Intel and its allies no longer see the IEEE as a body that meets their needs to get new technology to market quickly, nor as a group that they can influence to change its processes in favor of their business models.

In this case, then, it will be almost impossible for the IEEE not to work to get EWC back under its auspices. After all, the four founders of the group account for 80 per cent of Wi-Fi chip sales. And if EWC does submit its proposal to the taskgroup, there will be huge commercial pressure to accept it, in order not to delay the standard beyond 2006. The biggest loser will be Airgo, whose MIMO smart antenna technology underpins the converged proposal but which competes head-on with EWC co-founder Atheros.

The actual EWC proposal is likely to be a subset of the probable merged WWIse/TGn Sync platform. Its key technical elements, all included in one or both of the existing proposals, are: mixed-mode interoperability with 802.11a/b/g networks; PHY transmission rates up to 600Mbps; enhanced efficiency MAC with frame aggregation to bring actual throughput closer to the raw PHY rate, providing at least 100Mbps application level bandwidth; support for 2.4GHz and/or 5GHz unlicensed bands; support for either 20MHz or 40MHz channel sizes; spatial multiplexing modes for simultaneous transmission using one to four antennas; enhanced range via multiple antennas and advanced coding.

The new group has not broken ties with the IEEE entirely yet, and will meet the joint WWiSE/TGn Sync faction later this month for discussion. The goal is for the smaller group to concede before the next IEEE 802 taskgroup meeting takes place in November. At this meeting, any proposal needs to get a 75 per cent super-majority to avoid the process starting again from scratch. The EWC claims it can get products based on its platform in about a year’s time.

Copyright © 2005, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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