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Getting a jump on MIMO technology

A look at MIMO technology, which enhances operational throughput for 802.11 networks.


Like the U.S. military, the computer industry has always been obsessed with catchy acronyms and abbreviations that glibly roll off the tongue and often create a alphabet soup of confusion for those on the wrong side of the IT fence. In wireless communications, for example, there is WiFi, WiMax, WANs and PANs. Most everyone knows that GIGO is bad when you are striving for IT resource reliability (just as Gigli has been incredibly bad for a certain Red Sox-loving local actor).

One of the latest salvos in this IT industry war of the abbreviated words is MIMO, which is pronounced 'mee-moh', 'my-moh' or some other variation if you hail from Boston, and basically refers to 802.11 wireless technology that uses special algorithms and multiple antennae to effectively double the operational throughput of current 802.11 a,b and g systems. This means that an 802.11g wireless system that effectively pumps out data at a rate of 20M or 30M bis/second (on a good day), may be able to hot 100M bits/second or more when enhanced with MIMO technology. Makes sense, doesn't it? After all, if one antenna is good, then multiple antennae must be a lot better (when used with right software algorithms and chip sets, that is.)

MIMO chipsets are presently being developed by at least one vendor: Airgo Networks, and the concept is officially being investigated by the IEEE task group in charge of wireless technologies above and beyond 100M bits/second (The 3rd Generation Partnership Project). MIMO is not the only smart antenna game in town, either. A number of other companies are looking into multiple-antenna technology alternatives, including Vivato Networks, which takes a kind of shotgun approach to directional antenna and phased array technology.

Obviously, there is a lot of testing needed to be accomplished before MIMO and other smart antenna approaches are ready for IT prime time. Word on the street is that products incorporating multiple-antenna systems might be available sometime early next year, or maybe even quietly on display at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this January. This would seem to be the obvious course of action to take from a vendor standpoint: Develop a new technology, test that technology, install a few beta test sites, and then market the technology. So, you an imagine our surprise when we opened our local Sunday paper this yesterday and spied a flyer from a popular computer superstore that boldly proclaimed the availability of 'pre-802.11n' technology products that offered a 600% increase in speeds and 800% wider coverage over current 802.11g, and featured the multi-antennaed MIMO.

The distinctive MIMO wireless router (which with its three antennae reminds us of that three-eyed fish on the animated Simpsons cartoon series) is offered by Belkin Corp., a company previously known more for its cables and connectors, and is reportedly being offered exclusively nationwide through the CompUSA retail chain. The price of the router is competitive, about $130 after rebates, with related networking cards priced at roughly $70, again after rebates.

Click on over to the Belkin Web site and you'll see some very basic descriptions of the new product, including a coverage diagram that shows a wireless bubble of connectivity extending way beyond the walls of your house, seemingly lighting up half a suburban block – which means you better have all your security and encryption safeguards up to snuff or you could be asking for trouble from unscrupulous wireless cyber-squatters.

We've seen this kind of stuff before, not specifically involving MIMO technology but vendors rushing technology to market perhaps a bit too prematurely in a feeding frenzy to establish early market share. Our closet is full of early not-quite 802.11-based wireless products that are now pretty much incompatible with everything else in the market. Recently, one or two wireless vendors tried to introduce early products that supposedly included yet-to-be-ratified security specifications being considered by the IEEE. And, we won't even talk about early Bluetooth products purveyed too early by some very influential systems vendors that were quickly rendered useless once standards and specifications finally settled down.

To be fair, we haven't had an opportunity to test the early MIMO products, although we admit we are just as guilt of the next company in terms of 'wireless bubble envy' and the race to have wireless coverage that is bigger, better and longer lasting than yours. These new products may very well work fine, and may even eventually jive with final specifications – although we are told by very reputable IT sources that wireless systems that use mixed technologies (802.11 a,b and g) will usually defer to the slowest speeds and performance, which means you have to totally upgrade your system to get the best promised benefits.

Belkin claims on its Web site that its new 'pre-products' were thoroughly tested by The Tolly Group, a very reputable independent testing and certification organization based in Florida that regularly tests new products for some very major companies and presents a lot of its research in respected trade journals.

The point is that being there first with a technology isn't necessarily the best move in terms of corporate strategy and confidence-building in this industry. Having the latest and greatest technology, that just happens to be outside the scope of most IT users, may also not be the best bet in terms of capturing enterprise market share. We speak to countless IT and network managers within very large organizations, who say they are reluctant to deploy new technologies since a lot of what they are already using is based on current or older stuff and it just doesn't make god business sense to muck things up that are working relatively well.

While we neither recommend nor endorse the new 'pre-MIMO' technology, which will undoubtedly find a warmer early home in the consumer markets rather than in corporations, we will warn companies to proceed with caution when looking into newer developments that promise to boost present performance levels to the building rafters and beyond. Technologies such as MIMO may verbally roll of the tongue very smoothly, but it remains to be seen whether thee technologies and others are ready to roll off the assembly line and into mainstream business.


Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to http://www.shorelineresearch.com.


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