Experts say pre-802.11n gear is premature

As rival factions flesh out a merged proposal for the forthcoming 802.11n standard, experts explain how it will affect companies and why pre-standard gear won't cut it.

Wi-Fi's next era is coming as a compromise on the upcoming 802.11n high-speed wireless networking standard is reportedly just weeks away.

However, experts suggest companies resist the temptation to upgrade to faster equipment before a standard is approved.

According to Ken Dulaney, Gartner vice president of mobile computing, the 802.11n specification will be a major driver of the next generation of Wi-Fi equipment. Using multiple input, multiple output (MIMO) technology, which utilizes numerous antennas in transmitters and receivers, the resulting added bandwidth could boost data transfer rates as high as 500 Mbps.

But a finalized 802.11n standard has been stuck at an impasse because the two groups working with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) standards group on proposals have yet to agree on key issues, such as channel width and backward compatibility magnitudes.

One camp, TGn Sync, includes Intel Corp., as well as Nortel Networks Ltd., Samsung Electronics Co., Philips Corp. and Panasonic. Rival group WWiSE includes Airgo Networks Inc., Broadcom Corp., Motorola Inc. and Nokia Corp., among others.

At a May 2005 IEEE meeting, despite being the favorite, TGn Sync's proposal failed to win enough support to become the draft 802.11n standard. The IEEE's bylaws subsequently dictated that both groups' proposals be reconsidered.

WWiSE and TGn Sync have since come together to broker a compromise, and Dulaney said they will most likely enact a merged standard.

"What's going to happen is that they're going to resolve to use the best of both," he said. Most likely, users will have optional use of 20 or 40 MHz channels, backwards compatibility with 802.11a, b and g, as well as increased radio sensitivity and other advanced techniques.

Hooman Honary, senior strategic technologist with semiconductor vendor Broadcom Corp. and part of the WWiSE group, said there is an active joint proposal now between WWiSE and TGn Sync alliances with significant support from both groups.

He added, "We strongly support a merged proposal and are participating in the joint proposal activity."

Discussions between companies on key technical points is critical to generation of a high-quality draft, Honary said, and he's seeing encouraging signs that companies are talking.

And these discussions will bear fruit. Honary said the joint proposal development and constructive communication between the technical experts will improve the overall quality of the standard and benefit the industry as a whole.

Despite the optimism, it's going to be a while before companies can invest in high-speed Wi-Fi equipment based on an official 802.11n standard.

"I really don't think this will be important for users until 2007," Dulaney said. "It's just going to take that long to put all this together."

Honary advises users to delay Wi-Fi implementations until there is a final standard and interoperability certification available from the Wi-Fi Alliance because without a standard, there is no guarantee of interoperability.

"I'm telling my clients to buy a, b or g access points. Those will easily last for the next three or four years," Dulaney said.

But, he added, organizations should be wary of high-speed "pre-N" gear based on early 802.11n draft specifications. "The term 'pre-N' should be banned from our language."

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