Wi-Fi Alliance will Test Draft-N Products

By Eric Griffith

August 30, 2006

UPDATED: It won't test the current crop of products, but by the time Draft 2.0 is ready in 2007, look for the interoperability testing seal of approval before you buy.

Because of the expected delays in the IEEE's ratification process of the 802.11n standard for high-speed wireless networking, the Wi-Fi Alliance has decided to step up its timetable for testing products based on a draft of the standard.

Don't think this applies to the current crop of so-called Draft-N products on the market, however. This testing is for the future products that still use non-ratified 11n, starting in 2007.

"There's a lot of pre-N products shipping," says Frank Hanzlik, the managing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance, "and there will be more next year. To make sure people have a good experience, we think an interoperability program is paramount."  

Draft-N products have taken a constant drubbing in the press, including the Wall Street Journal. The recommendation has usually been this: do not buy the current crop of Draft-N products -- due to issues with performance and interoperability, especially interoperating with legacy 802.11b/g networks -- and stick with the pre-N MIMO (multiple-in, multiple-out) products that came out in 2005. Rival chipmakers like Broadcom and Atheros have been forced to make joint announcements claiming products using their respective Draft-N chips work together just fine.

This program will be the Wi-Fi Alliance's attempt to head off such problems with the 2.0 Draft.

Despite the warnings to avoid Draft-N in the press, In-Stat says 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. (That doesn't, however, quantify how many actually sold to end users, and no vendors have made any claims of blockbuster sales of the products.)

In the past, the Alliance has usually only done interoperability testing on fully-ratified 802.11-based standards. A major exception was work it did on a subset of the 802.11i security standard under the moniker of Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). Once 802.11i was finished, it revised that to WPA2. Hanzlik says the Alliance's 11n plans will follow that pattern.

The 802.11n Marketing Task Group within the Wi-Fi Alliance, made up of member companies, recommended that the Alliance start testing before 11n is fully cooked. Because of the deluge of comments on the first Draft 1.0, the IEEE's 802.11n Task Group (TGn) probably won't get a 2.0 draft until at least January 2007, with a letter ballot to follow at the March 2007 meeting. Once the letter ballot vote gets a 75% approval from TGn, it'll take another full year before final ratification.

Hanzlik says the Alliance has a two-phase plan for testing 802.11n products. First will come tests of products based on the 2.0 draft, meant to coincide with the letter ballot stage of IEEE voting. That could be March 2007 (or later if delayed), but Hanzlik says even if it is delayed, "it's still important to have something, and we'll draw upon whatever is in the draft process as it exists." For a timeframe, he'll promise only the first half of 2007. "There's a lot of good momentum driving toward this Draft 2.0, we're very much saying we support that, and we want people to work out the issues," he says. "There can be a reward for all of us in the first half of next year."

The second phase of testing comes after the 802.11n standard is ratified. The tests will be changed to reflect whatever comes in the final specification. The goal at this point will be to ensure forward and backward compatibility with Draft 2.0 products.

Hanzlik says it's too early to say whether Wi-Fi certification for final 802.11n would require backward compatibility with legacy 802.11b/g/a networks. Hanzlik told Wi-Fi Planet on August 29, "The plan of our 802.11n certification program will certainly be to support backward compatibility for 802.11a/b/g networks."

There's a chance this two-phase program could get a fancy name (like WPA or the recently-announced Wi-Fi Protected Setup) and logo, but those details have yet to be worked out within the Alliance's 802.11n Marketing Task Group. "There's people who'll want to keep it simple, and others who want to be creative," says Hanzlik. "We'll have those discussions and maybe bring in third party branding experts to see who's right."

Airgo Networks, the chipmaker that pioneered much of the MIMO-product market before Draft-N even made it to 1.0, has already heralded the move by the Wi-Fi Alliance as "eliminating the chaos," according to Dave Borison, director of product marketing at Airgo.

"Our plan all along has been to focus not on an unstable version, but to wait until it's firm and mature, to guarantee 802.11n compliance," says Borison. "Our intention is to be first to market with 802.11n draft compliant chips." Airgo's 4th Gen chips will be based on the 2.0 Draft for 802.11n. The company continues to sell its "pre-N" 3rd Generation chips in products today. They still frequently get high recommendations over the Draft-N products.

Of the 12,000 comments the 1.0 Draft of 802.11n received at the IEEE — a major factor in the delay of the standard's ratification until 2008 — Borison guesses that Airgo itself submitted "probably hundreds."

"There are big issues" with the current 1.0 Draft, Borison insists. But he thinks the 2.0 Draft will take care of that. "We're excited, we support the plan, we support the Alliance," he says. "There's a lot of chaos, so it makes a lot of sense to not wait until March of 2008 [to test]."

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