By Jeff Goldman
February 24, 2009
Ratification of the 802.11n standard is expected in January of 2010–but with more than 500 Draft-N products already certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance, how much of a difference will final ratification really make?
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Although the Wi-Fi Alliance started certifying “Draft-N” products based on draft 2.0 of 802.11n back in June of 2007, the standard isn’t expected to be ratified for another year or so: the IEEE’s 802.11n Task Group anticipates publication in November of 2009, with final ratification to follow in January of 2010. Still, with the Wi-Fi Alliance’s certification program already flourishing, that final ratification may not make much of an actual difference in the marketplace.
Frost & Sullivan analyst James Brehm points out that, thanks to the certification program, there’s no shortage of Draft-N equipment already deployed. “In the consumer world, when you go to the stores, you find no b, you find very little g, and all you find is n,” he says. “And in the enterprise world, n deployments are happening as well: people are not waiting around for the ratification to happen.”
Wi-Fi Alliance marketing director Kelly Davis-Felner says the decision to certify to draft 2.0 back in 2007 was a relatively straightforward one. “We were seeing a fair amount of maturity in the draft, our member companies were shipping products, and there seemed to be enough momentum in the marketplace around a baseline set of features… that it seemed like it made sense for us to go ahead with a draft-based certification program,” she says.And that program, Davis-Felner says, has been extremely successful. “We’ve certified more than 500 products to date, including more than 80 enterprise products, so from that perspective it’s been one of those technology certification success stories… our testing program helped the industry coalesce around a baseline set of features and helped enable broad interoperability across vendors—and as such, we saw a very, very strong continued market uptake,” she says.
In the time since the launch, Davis-Felner says, very little has changed in the program itself. “The plan of record has always been that what we would do is issue a revision to the program at ratification of the final standard,” she says. “The topic, ‘Is it necessary to have an interim revision?’ has come up a couple of times, but has never really gotten legs… there doesn’t seem to be any need for something to happen between now and ratification.”
The point is that the IEEE and the Wi-Fi Alliance have very distinct objectives. “We work at a very market-oriented level, and the IEEE works at a very technology-oriented level,” Davis-Felner says. “So we’re trying to find the handful of things that have very, very broad adoption across the market, and certifying to those features—whereas the IEEE is developing a document that boils the ocean and defines everything that’s possible within the standard.”
Pat Calhoun, CTO of the Access and Network Services Business Group at Cisco Systems, says the key remaining issue for the task group really comes down to the potential for interference caused by 40 MHz support, or channel bonding, at 2.4 GHz. “In a high-density residential environment, like an apartment building or a condo, if somebody has a 40 MHz channel in 2.4, that could be creating interference with legacy gear,” he says.
And no matter what the final standard looks like, Calhoun says, it’s all but certain that it will be fully backward compatible with the gear the Wi-Fi Alliance has been certifying for the past few years. “Every time new features come in, there’s always a fair amount of scrutiny that’s done by the task group… to make sure that everything that’s shipped is going to continue to be supported and be compatible with the standard when it’s ratified,” he says.
That means the remaining issues are largely about optional features, not mandatory ones. “And there are some that may never see the light of day,” Calhoun says. “There are some features in there that are interesting to a subset of the industry, but it’s not clear to me that they’re interesting to the industry as a whole… some of them are going to be interesting to enterprise, and some are going to be interesting for consumer electronics or other highly verticalized environments.”
Looking back at the progress of the standard thus far, Calhoun says, things have actually gone extremely well. “When you look at the early days, there was a fair amount of tension—there were a lot of different opinions,” he says. “And I think the industry did a great job in getting together and agreeing on the core features, which was really the basis of the 2.0 draft that was certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance.”
In fact, Calhoun says, the Wi-Fi Alliance’s certification program may actually have slowed down the ratification process. “The fact that the Wi-Fi Alliance did the certification took a lot of pressure off the IEEE,” he says. “If that had not happened, I think there would have been a lot more pressure on the IEEE to publish something sooner than 2010. The fact that the gear is out there, I think, really changed the expectations of the IEEE, so they were able to take their time and do a great job—as opposed to rushing something through just because the industry was looking for it.”
Jeff Goldman is a veteran technology journalist and frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet. He is based in Southern California.