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Wi-Fi Alliance bows to market need for early 802.11n products

Standards can't keep up with market

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Analysis It is increasingly obvious that standards processes are falling hopelessly behind the real time to market needs of vendors. In WiMAX and, particularly, Wi-Fi, markets suppliers are pre-empting ratified standards by ever longer margins. Initially, as with the 54Mbps 802.11g Wi-Fi system and with 802.16d, 'pre-standard' products were built to the finalized IEEE specification, but had not yet achieved any independent certification of this.

But the pre-standard products for the 100Mbps-plus 802.11n Wi- Fi extension are coming even earlier, over a year before the standard is likely to be set in stone, creating serious interoperability and performance risks for buyers. Last year the Wi-Fi Alliance took a tough line on such devices, saying it would take action against companies using the '802.11n' ahead of certification.

Now it is bowing to the inevitable and agreeing to certify a wave of prestandard products itself, a realistic move given the rush of fast Wi- Fi offerings into the market, but raising serious doubts over the future role of the IEEE and other such bodies. The Alliance's plan to have a two-stage certification process will not affect the current 'pre-n' equipment that is being launched by consumer WLAN suppliers such as Linksys and Belkin, but will be introduced in 2007 to coincide with draft 2 of the standard, currently under review.

The body says its change of heart is largely because of the need for even pre-standard products to have a way to test and prove interoperability. Suppliers of so-called Draft N chips, notably Broadcom and Atheros, have recently been countering widespread suspicion of early devices with jointly waged PR campaigns asserting that their silicon - and products based on it - interoperates well, and also with legacy 802.11b/g WLans. As with the huge success of Broadcom, in particular, in prestandard 802.11g, consumers are racing to buy Draft N, despite press and analyst warnings. According to researchers at In-Stat, in the second quarter of 2006 at least 300,000 Draft-N products (routers, access points and client cards) shipped from companies like Linksys, D-Link, Belkin, Buffalo Technology and Netgear.

This is the first time the Alliance has offered interoperability testing on a base network standard before ratification, but it does have a precedent in its work on interim versions of security and quality of service extensions - its WPA and WMM platforms, respectively, pre-empted the full 802.11i and 802.11e standards by at least a year, as it became clear that vendor and customer needs for these features were far more urgent than the IEEE timescales.

The dilemma is clear - the more weight is placed on getting key features to market in line with the accelerating cycle of wireless adoption, especially in the consumer sector, the less power the standards bodies will have, potentially putting crucial technologies even more firmly into the hands of certain large vendors, which can often influence de facto platforms and the industry alliances more readily than engineering committees.

The 802.11n Marketing Task Group of the Wi-Fi Alliance recommended that testing start before 11n is finalized. Because of the deluge of comments on the first Draft 1.0, the IEEE's 802.11n Task Group is unlikely to get a 2.0 draft until at least January 2007, with a letter ballot to follow at the March 2007 meeting. If that achieves the required 75% approval it will take another year until final ratification.

The Alliance has a two-phase plan for testing 802.11n products. First will come tests based on the 2.0 draft, designed to coincide with the letter ballot stage of IEEE voting. If that is delayed further, Alliance chief Frank Hanzlik says some form of testing will be needed. "It's still important to have something, and we'll draw upon whatever is in the draft process as it exists."

The second phase of testing comes after the 802.11n standard is ratified and tests will be changed to reflect changes made in the final specification and to ensure forward and backward compatibility with Draft 2.0 products. The Alliance has not decided whether backwards compatibility to older Wi-Fi networks will be required. One company welcoming the move was Airgo Networks, whose MIMO smart antenna technology was initially central to the leading 802.11n proposal, but which was sidelined when Intel, Broadcom and others took control of Draft 1.0. It has been a heavy critic of that draft and has refused to launch chips for the "half baked" technology.

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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