Summer School for Product Failures

By Ed Sutherland

February 23, 2004

With the number of 802.11 products that fail to get an official Wi-Fi stamp hovering around 30%, the Wi-Fi Alliance has plans to make it easier for companies to achieve interoperability certification.

Following reports that nearly a third of Wi-Fi products fail initial testing, the Wi-Fi Alliance has begun a pre-exam program making it easier for companies to obtain the industry consortium's "Wi-Fi Certified" stamp of approval.

The Wi-Fi Alliance "wants to make [the testing process] as easy as possible," says Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the group.

The new program, begun in January at the urging of Alliance members, allows companies to get "their products tested and work with the test labs to schedule a time for a product pretest," according to spokesman Brian Grimm. The products can undergo pre-testing while waiting for official testing, says Grimm.

In January, the Alliance announced 1,000 products had undergone the certification process since 2002. What made news, however, was Hanzlik's remark that 25 to 30 percent of those products failed during initial testing.

Hanzlik told Wi-Fi Planet that the failure rate of Wi-Fi products "is even higher than the 20 to 30 percent" previously announced.

Reasons for Wi-Fi products failing fall into two broad categories: poor performance and interoperability problems. "Individual 802.11 standards have their own reasons for failing," says Hanzlik.

For 802.11b, the first mass-adopted Wi-Fi standard, failures happen because of improper associating between client and access point, power savings issues, roaming incompatibility and trouble with the radio hardware.

For the now popular 802.11g, failures of the protection mechanism created in a mixed 11b and 11g environment created association failures and low throughput.

Controversy has surrounded 802.11g since inception. Analysts at Gartner had recommended companies refrain from purchasing Wi-Fi gear based on a draft version of the standard. Recently, the Wi-Fi Alliance decided to investigate claims by chipmaker Broadcom that the SuperG "turbo mode" offered by rival Atheros created network interference.

Hanzlik says there will be "spikes" in product failures as the level of complexity increases.

"It is important to remember that Wi-Fi is a very sophisticated radio technology that is continuously being enhanced," Hanzlik said.

The pretests now offered by the Alliance are a precursor to the official certification process but "is like the official test," says Grimm. Certification is based on interoperability among the various IEEE wireless networking standards.

Grimm says company engineers are able to take products to labs at one of the Alliance's four independent sites in Tokyo, San Jose, the UK or Taiwan. There, vendors are able to "work out the bugs" prior to official certification.

Failing the initial certification brings relatively severe consequences. If vendors fail, their product is dropped to the end of the testing queue. The turn-around time is "fairly substantial," according to Grimm, ranging from one week to a month. Such delays can be costly in a cut-throat market where companies scramble for advantage and profit-margins are razor thin.

Although not necessary for a product to market itself as 802.11b or 802.11g compatible, the Wi-Fi Alliance certification process has become a de facto seal of approval for consumers and enterprises.

The Wi-Fi Alliance keeps confidential the names of vendors that fail initial certification testing, says Grimm. Such disclosures would negatively impact product sales, he says.

There is an extra fee for the pretests, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance. How much beyond the $15,000 lifetime certification fee depends on whether the gadget is using 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g or WPA, says Grimm. Member vendors pay the nonprofit Wi-Fi Alliance a yearly $25,000 membership fee.

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