Slow progress for 802.11n standards

Next-generation Wi-Fi is bogged down by a tedious standardization process

The IEEE 802.11n standard has been three years in the making, and from the looks of it, it has at least another year to go. That’s a shame because it offers a lot of benefits, including higher throughput than the current Wi-Fi standard -- about 120Mbps in the real world -- and 50 percent longer range. Plus, because it uses multiple antennas that can stitch together a fractured signal, it eliminates a lot of spots where there might be drop-offs indoors.

Before the first-draft balloting there were lengthy negotiations between three disagreeing factions. These were the hardware WLAN network manufacturers, who wanted a quick turnaround so they could get product out the door; handset players, who were concerned about the lack of specs for power-saving and VoIP; and the consumer-electronics industry, which wanted to accommodate far more devices than just access points.

When a compromise was reached, the so-called Letter Balloting began, going out to the 400 or so members of the working group. The ballot asked for a vote on the spec, up or down, plus comments. Victory was expected, but it was not to be. The vote was only 47 percent in favor, with 53 percent disapproving.

In total there were 12,000 comments, each of which must be addressed directly by a smaller working subgroup of about 100 active members before another vote can take place. The comments ranged from pointing out typos to asking for significant changes. But get this: Of the 12,000 comments, half came from three people.

Let that sink in a moment. Yes, three people at AT&T Labs had 6,000 comments between them.

It will take the subgroup another two to four months to address each comment, says Bill McFarland, CTO of Atheros and a member of the subgroup. Fed up with the excruciatingly slow standardization process, Atheros announced last week that it had come to an agreement with competitor Broadcom to build interoperable chip sets for 802.11n -- or what they are certain will become 802.11n.

McFarland says customers need not fear that the spec will change in any substantive way when it gets final approval, promising that no one who decides to buy either company’s solutions will be hung out to dry. On a scale of one to 10, he says chances of any major changes are a three or less.

Sounds good, right? Wrong, says Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance. “Two companies agreeing to do something is fine, but it is not a substitute for an industrywide certification program,” Hanzlik says. The Wi-Fi Alliance plans to bring out its certification program coincident with the ratification of the standard and not before.

Hanzlik points out that we are no longer just linking PCs to PCs with access points. Rather, we are seeing a proliferation of devices that need to be compatible. Phones, printers, televisions, projectors, you name it — all will have Wi-Fi embedded. “You need a common foundation,” Hanzlik says.

McFarland says that if you wait, you’ll miss out on a great technology for at least a year and some months. September 2007 is IEEE’s best promise.

But Hanzlik says you just don’t know at this point what changes might be made, adding, “Customers might be stranded.” Yeah, especially if those three guys at AT&T Labs get another shot at it. But there is one thing both McFarland and Hanzlik agree on: The current standardization process needs to change. Amen.