Consumers warned off pre-standard 802.11n purchases

The risks of buying fast Wi-Fi too early

Standards bodies move far more slowly than the market for fast wireless products, and the concept of the "pre-standard" or "standards-ready" product has become a common one. Such products are built to the official specifications, but may be a year or more ahead of an official certification programme for that spec.

The latest category at the heart of the debate on whether it is wise to buy non-certified kit is the emerging 100Mbps-plus Wi-Fi standard, 802.11n, which will be heavily geared to home digital media networks.

The practise of launching pre-standard gear has caused enormous controversy in Wi-Fi and WiMAX, ever since Broadcom put it on the map with the 802.11g Wi-Fi upgrade in 2004, with claims that pre-standard products carry high risk because they may have to be altered to gain certification, and may not be interoperable with other devices.

Much of this scaremongering is marketing-driven, usually coming from vendors that have slipped behind in rolling out new generation products. For many consumer users, interoperability is not a major issue – they just want increased speed but are happy to buy from a single vendor (of course, this is not true of the enterprise, but few companies are inclined to buy cutting edge wireless technology).

With the price pressure in the consumer Wi-Fi sector, even if the devices prove obsolete once fully standard kit emerges, the user's financial risk runs only to $100 or so.

Broadcom, which launched pre-certified 802.11g chips in 2004 - a gamble that paid off to the extent that it propelled the company from nowhere to the top two in WLan silicon – has now shipped uncertified 802.11n chips to several customers. In fact, the company has been fairly slow in this market by its standards.

Start-up Airgo, which specialises in the MIMO smart antenna technology that lies at the heart of 802.11n, illustrated the dark side of the pre-standard gamble. It shipped its chips, dubbed pre-N, but in fact not built to any standard, since the specification had not been finalised, to several tier one customers, including Linksys and Bel-kin.

But it then faced the prospect of a group led by Intel, Atheros and Broadcom, in effect forcing the IEEE standards body to adopt their preferred approach to 802.11n and MIMO, rather than an Airgo-based option. This will force the smaller player to re-engineer its products to be compliant, and it will lose its headstart in the market and, potentially, some of its big name customers.

Consumers may not care too much about standards, but the other risk of pre-standard products is that the technology may not have matured enough to guarantee robust performance. Early tests carried out by the Farpoint Group suggest that "draft N" products fall short of requirements.

The consultancy's CEO Craig Mathias said the products tested could not communicate with each other when in the high speed MIMO mode used by 802.11n. There was no interoperability when the competing products had the same chip, even when the products were from the same vendor.

Other problems with pre-certified equipment include lack of a guarantee on upgradeability; possible interference with existing WLan equipment – a debate that has raged for two years between the major vendors; and the need for Gigabit Ethernet to get the speed benefit, and the current expense of the equipment.

Home networking products using Draft N, mainly wireless routers around $150 and PC Cards for notebooks for about $120, have appeared from Netgear, Buffalo Technology and Linksys, with D-Link and Belkin to launch soon.

Ironically, the best performer in the Farpoint trial was the Linksys SRX 400, which uses the Airgo True MIMO chips and did not even try to conform to the 802.11n specs. However, Broadcom has shipped its Intensi-fi draft N chips to Buffalo, Netgear and US Robotics already, and hopes the draft specification will be formally adopted by the IEEE next year, with Wi-Fi Alliance conformance testing and certification to follow later in 2007.

Atheros is also sampling its XSpan draft N products.

Copyright © 2006, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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