802.11n: It's Never Easy

By Eric Griffith

March 15, 2006

One side says all is well in the standards process; another warns of problems if products ship based on the new 1.0 draft specification.

High-speed wireless networks that far outstrip the paltry speeds of today's 802.11-based networks are definitely in our future. That's the good news.

However, it might take a little longer to get a final high-speed WLAN specification than some were anticipating even two months ago.

Atheros CTO Bill McFarland said in a statement last week that the newly minted 1.0 specification — it was agreed to at the IEEE 802.11 Working Group's plenary meeting in Denver — is "technically extremely similar to the earlier drafts" and that the lack of change from January "validates the stability of the specification."

But Airgo Networks says the 1.0 draft has problems. Specifically, the company says the current draft, if implemented in a product, would degrade — even disable — existing networks using 802.11b/g in the 2.4GHz frequency band. The implication is that Airgo's competition is willing to break existing networks to get market share.

Keep in mind, Airgo is a chipmaker that currently has a leadership position in powering wireless products using the multiple in, multiple out (MIMO) technique. MIMO will be integral to 802.11n when it's done. As such, Airgo stands to become just another one of many chip vendors when the technology goes mainstream. Casting aspersions on the competition is par for the course.

But that doesn't negate the fact that competitors like Atheros, Broadcom and Marvell were all showing off 802.11n draft based chips at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, and all expect to have 11n draft-compliant products out within the calendar year — long before 802.11n will be finished.

Airgo says that 1.0 is too early a draft to base chips on, and says it won't do so until a later version is out (802.11g, for example, went all the way to draft version 8). The company doesn't think software or firmware will be able to make such early 11n draft silicon upgradeable to the final 11n spec.

Reports are that instead of waiting until the next IEEE meeting, the 802.11n Task Group formed an internal committee chaired by members from Cisco and Motorola that will spend time over the next two months looking into the 11n 1.0 draft's interference issue. Members of the 11n Task Group didn't get back to Wi-Fi Planet for comment.

Some of this is reminiscent of the early days of the 802.11g specification, when Broadcom took an early leadership position by releasing chips that weren't upgradeable to the final specification, and withstood many accusations of products causing interference instead of interoperating. At the time, however, Broadcom continued on and became a leader in the market place for Wi-Fi chips.  At least one company, Netgear, has already made a public promise to release 802.11n draft specification products with designs shown at the CeBIT show in Germany, but the company didn't announce what company is supplying the chips.

Airgo's not stopping with its TRUE MIMO branded products, either, which have already been featured in products from Linksys, Belkin and Netgear. The Airgo 3rd Generation chips will also power a new router and notebook PC Card announced this week by ASUSTeK Computer. The TRUE MIMO chips aren't even close to the 1.0 specification, and won't be upgradeable to final 802.11n.

When Belkin started selling the 1st Gen TRUE MIMO chips in products it labeled as "Pre-N" in late 2004, the Wi-Fi Alliance took a stance that any product that claims to have IEEE 802.11n capabilities but "adversely impacts the interoperability of other Wi-Fi Certified products" will get its certification revoked. Karen Hanley, Senior Director of Marketing at the Alliance, says that has never happened yet. "Making sure products have interoperability and backward compatibility is key," she says. "We can't certify a product that broke a network."

However, the testing by the Alliance is strictly voluntary. Even members like Netgear don't have to submit a product for testing if they don't mind going to market without the Wi-Fi Certified seal on the box. For them, the speed boost they can claim may outweigh not having the seal.

Speed is all well and good, but is it the end-all and be-all that these companies think drives the end-user consumers that will make up the bulk of 802.11n purchases even after the specification is finished? Tech blogger Om Malik may have put it best when he wrote about this current 11n controversy: "This long drawn out drama doesn’t mean squat to consumers who are screaming for simplicity and easy-to-set-up gear. It creates even more confusion in the minds of gear buyers."

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