802.11g: Ready or Not?

By Joe McGarvey

July 03, 2002

While some chipmakers forge ahead with product plans, others say the specification still isn't cooked enough.

One of the slipperiest slopes that semiconductor companies and equipment vendors must negotiate is the timing of the introduction of chipsets and products that comply with new or pending industry standards.

The objective, of course, is to be the first to market with products that are compatible with an emerging standard. In nearly every case, however, being a market leader means building a product based on a preliminary version of the final standard. The risky part of aiming at technology that is essentially a moving target is delivering semiconductors or interface cards that do not incorporate last-minute alterations to the specifications, making them incompatible with products based on the completed standard.

The 802.11g standard, the hotly anticipated follow up to the 802.11b and 802.11a specifications that is now wending its way through an IEEE Task Group, appears to have reached a point in its maturity in which some chipmakers are ready to start stamping out silicon.

"A lot of companies are forging ahead with products," says John Allen, senior manager and director of marketing and communications at Intersil Corp., a wireless networking chip manufacturer. "Anything that needs to be done [to incorporate changes made to the specification] can be done with software updates and firmware changes."

Intersil will begin sampling chipsets based on the 802.11g specification sometime in August, says Allen. The company is also move ahead with dual-band chips, which would support all Wi-Fi flavors that operate in the 2.4 or 5 gigahertz frequency range. Allen says the dual-band chipsets are scheduled to sample by the end of the year, with products likely emerging sometime around March of next year.

While Intersil and others are taking an aggressive approach to 802.11g market opportunities, others believe that the number of technical issues that have yet to be resolved by the IEEE Task Group warrant a more conservative approach. Chipmaker Texas Instruments, for one, suspects that the differences between the specification as it stands now and the completed standard are likely to be too numerous and significant to correct without issuing new hardware.

"It's not exactly enough of a slam dunk that anyone could claim that if they rushed product to market they could fix it with a patch or firmware or something of that nature," says Bill Carney, director of business development at TI. "Anyone cavalier enough to issue pre-standard products is probably facing an upgrade."

Though he didn't cite specifics, Carney says that at least one wireless LAN equipment company had been burned in the past for using chipsets that were based on a pre-final version of the standard. Last-minute changes to the specification, he says, instantly rendered supposed standard-based equipment incompatible with the final specification.

"It's irresponsible for companies at such an early stage in the process to announce the development of chipsets so that OEMs can develop products in advance of the standards," adds Carney.

In addition to differences in corporate culture, the decision of whether to begin developing 802.11g products now or wait until some of the thornier of the remaining technical issues are resolved depends on the company's interpretation of the current state of the standard. While Intersil's Allen doesn't see any major roadblocks remaining, Carney and TI envision a much bumpier course to the finish line.

"There are some questions about the use of OFDM in this frequency," says Carney, referring to the fact that the 2.4GHz 802.11g spec uses the same Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing modulating technique as 802.11a, which operates in the 5GHz frequency band. "Plus, there are still questions of what do you need in terms of backward compatibility and how do you implement that."

In terms of the number of lingering issues to be resolved, the 802.11 Task Group is looking to iron out about 100 remaining editorial and technical questions at the next meeting of the group in early July, according to Matthew Shoemake, chairperson of the IEEE 802.11g Task Group and the director of research and development for wireless technology at TI. The Task Group, which has resolved about 1,100 of the 1,200 comments that came back after the first ballot of the specification was voted on in January, expects to finish off the remaining issues at the next meeting, says Shoemake.

"Our formal objective at the next meeting is to get through the remaining comments, update our draft and request at the working group level to send out for a second ballot," says Shoemake.

Provided the Task Group, which meets every other month, meets its timetable, the 350 to 400 voting members of the 802.11g committee will essentially start the process over again at the September meeting, says Shoemake. By January of next year, Shoemake expects the draft to be ready to be sent up to another level of the IEEE, where all members of the standards organization will have a chance to look it over.

Considering the large number of voting members involved with 802.11g, Shoemaker says the standard has progress roughly on the timetable he would have imagined. He expects the final standard to be ratified in May at the earliest, which is actually a few months later than the original timetable called for. (The latest information about the 802.11g Task Group can be found at the "Status of Project IEEE 802.11g site.)

Shoemake adopts a diplomatic posture when questioned about the likelihood of chipsets based on the existing state of the standard being upgradeable to the final specification.

"The IEEE does not have a position with respect to that question," says Shoemake, adding that the organization obviously does not have an issue with companies working on products before the standard is finalized. However, he said the IEEE frowns on equipment makers and chipmakers claiming standards compliance before the specification is finished.

"Where the IEEE would take issue is that it's not in the spirit of the organization to claim standard compliance with a standard that isn't finished yet," he says. "The standard is about interoperability. Until we get final ratification, things can change."

Joe McGarvey is a network and telecommunications writer based in New York. He can be reached at mcgarvey@optonline.net
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