Interop 2006: Some vendors plow ahead with 802.11n despite vote failure

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Interop 2006: Some vendors plow ahead with 802.11n despite vote failure

Las Vegas (NV) – Yesterday’s failure of the 1.0 draft specification for the 802.11n specification to be ratified by members of its IEEE working group, has left vendors of wireless networking equipment with a critical choice: Do they go ahead with plans to produce MIMO equipment, knowing that when IEEE members eventually ratify a 2.0 or later draft, they leave their customers without a clear upgrade path? Or do they go ahead and produce 802.11g equipment for the meantime, knowing a final ratification may only be a few months away?

The vote wasn’t even close, as reported by the IEEE. With voting having taken place between 19 March and 29 April, 435 members were expected to vote. In today’s tally, of the 81% of members whose votes were tallied in time, 149 approved, 171 disapproved, with 32 abstentions. The draft would have required a super-majority of 75% to be ratified; of those who voted; only 42.3% approved.

Just after the draft’s failure, as reported by TG Daily yesterday, Airgo Networks’ CEO released a statement clearly spelling out where his company stood: It won’t advocate a path that could leave its customers in a developmental ditch. Although Airgo is recognized as a major proponent of 11n, it will continue to provide 11g chipsets. A report from ABI Research analyst Alan Varghese released this morning states that Airgo’s move will have plenty of support from Atheros, Broadcom, Conexant, Intel, Marvell, and Texas Instruments.

But other vendors, Varghese warned, will be wanting to seed the market with “next-generation” wireless equipment with True MIMO, and other features that are expected to become part of 11n, but whose exact operational specifications have yet to be determined by the IEEE. “There will be wide variability between them,” writes Varghese, “and true interoperability between vendors is still wishful thinking. So consumers and business users should be wary about their purchases, at least till final ratification of the standard.”

This morning, DigiTimes reports that three of Airgo’s leading competitors – D-Link, Linksys (a Cisco division), and Netgear – will go ahead with plans to produce so-called “pre-N” gateways, routers, and adapters for the US market. The selling price for “pre-N” equipment could be as much as double the current retail price for 11g equipment, calculates DigiTimes, with Taiwan-based chipset manufacturers CyberTAN, GemTek, SerComm, and Cameo Communications all standing to benefit significantly from the moral stand Airgo is making.

While Interop 2006 proceeds in Las Vegas, other vendors are being forced to quickly make choices, some of whom may be leaving customers asking whether leaving off the little “n” after the standard really makes a difference. Just today, Jungo Software Technologies went ahead and released its hardware and software reference design, for what the company describes as “gateways with advanced 802.11 MIMO wireless networking capabilities.” Added to Jungo’s design is support for Airgo’s True MIMO chipset.

When the company starts referring to True MIMO, that’s when the little “n” re-enters the picture. In its announcement today, Jungo praised Airgo for being the sole company to release a chipset that uses orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) for wave encoding in MIMO. OFDM is described by Jungo as a component “designed into all major proposals for the 802.11n standard. By leveraging multipath, reflections of a radio signal, and transmitting multiple signals in a single 20 MHz radio channel, Airgo’s True MIMO multiplies both data rates and reliable coverage area without using additional frequency spectrum and without causing interference with other Wi-Fi networks.”

Jungo may be trying to have it both ways. By officially leaving off the “n,” it sides with Airgo in that it doesn’t openly plan to present a non-upgradable option to customers. On the other hand, by including OFDM with True MIMO, Jungo’s presenting the technology it thinks will eventually be ratified, all without the embarrassment of jumping on the “n” too soon.

It is interference which is probably the sticking factor holding up ratification of an 11n draft, as some statements by Airgo over the months apparently predicted. Industry observer Glenn Fleishman, in his Wi-Fi Networking News blog, wrote that one debate among wireless providers today concerns how 11n could implement some channels with double the bandwidth of current 11g channels. The 20 MHz channels in 11g, he writes, are actually 22 MHz channels, only three of which don’t overlap in the current layout of the 2.4 GHz band. In most urban areas, he writes, there’s always someone talking on one of the current channels, so there may not be enough space to implement a new 40 MHz channel without bumping into existing traffic. It’s a shame, too, because apparently, it could be as easy to create a 40 MHz channel as splicing two old channels together.

In a post this morning, Fleishman wrote that it shouldn’t be cause for panic that the IEEE failed to ratify a 1.0 draft – that happens relatively often. The earliest he believes the Institute could hold another vote may be September, and even then, a 2.0 draft may not be approved. And even then, it may take another several months for the WiFi Alliance to compose a certification process for 11n. The real mistake, Fleishman believes, is that D-Link, Linksys, and Netgear would go ahead and produce pre-N equipment, with no guarantee of upgradeability.

If archaeologists find these news articles and blog posts centuries from now, they could very well conclude that “next-generation” was a euphemistic code-word for “stuck in neutral.”

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