New WLAN group shakes up standards process

Intel and Cisco take aleading role

The formation this week of a consortium for high-speed wireless LANs brings together more than two dozen vendors from both sides of an ongoing standards debate, but a prominent chip vendor believes core members of the group have sidestepped and disrupted the standards process.

Intel Corp., Broadcom Corp., Atheros Communications Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc., among others, on Monday announced the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC) with the stated intention of breaking a deadlock over the IEEE 802.11n specification. That emerging standard is designed to boost real-world wireless LAN throughput to at least 100M bps (bits per second).

However, Airgo Networks Inc., one of the biggest vendors of chips used today in pre-standard high-speed gear, says the chip vendors behind the EWC are disrupting the standards process and causing further delay.

Negotiations over 802.11n had been characterized by conflict between two groups of vendors, called WWiSE (World-Wide Spectrum Efficiency) and TGn Sync, each one pushing different ways of increasing wireless LAN speed.

As of earlier this year, Broadcom, Airgo Networks Inc., Motorola Inc. were members of WWiSE, and Intel, Atheros and Cisco belonged to TGn Sync. The long fight between those factions has caused 802.11n to take much longer to develop than previous specifications, according to industry analysts.

For any proposal to be adopted, IEEE rules require approval by 75 percent of the standard's task group. In July the 802.11n group was deadlocked, with neither WWiSE nor TGnSync able to garner that much support. A joint proposal committee was formed so backers of both plans could come up with a compromise and bring it back to the IEEE task group. That wasn't working, according to Bill McFarland, chief technology officer at Atheros.

"For whatever reason, that organization was not able to make very rapid progress," McFarland said. "When we got together this other group of companies, they moved very rapidly to create a complete specification." Forming the EWC itself required compromise among the members, McFarland said.

The formation of EWC "really is just one particular set of compromises that merges WWiSE and TGn Sync together," he said. Members of the EWC believe the group's specification has enough support to be approved by the 802.11n task group at its next meeting in November.

"We think we're getting there," said Bill Bunch, director of product marketing for wireless LAN at Broadcom Corp. "We think it makes a lot of sense to a lot of the voters," Bunch said. In the meantime, none of the companies has stopped work on the joint proposal committee, he added.

Airgo, which has not joined the EWC, sees the situation differently. As soon as the joint proposal committee started meeting, major chip vendors at the core of the EWC were already working on setting up that group behind the scenes, said Greg Raleigh, president and chief executive officer at Airgo.

"At the very first face-to-face meeting ... this group was having private side conferences explaining that they were already developing silicon to a third specification," Raleigh said. Raleigh complained that some members had access to the EWC specification ahead of others because of a "discriminatory policy" by the group.

The EWC was not immediately available to respond to Raleigh's comments, but representatives of the group said Tuesday they believed Airgo had seen the specification.

Raleigh believes the formation of the EWC will slow down, not accelerate, the development of 802.11n.

"The joint proposal group would have come up with a compromise by now if the initial private efforts between those core silicon competitors had not disrupted the process," Raleigh said.

The conflict between Airgo and the EWC echoes competition among pre-standard products, analysts said.

The booming wireless LAN industry has put more pressure on companies to get faster products out and to grab their piece of the rapidly evolving market, said Peter Jarich, an analyst at Current Analysis Inc. Vendors have gone ahead with pre-standard technologies that build up a momentum of their own just through sales volume, he said.

The two most prominent makers of chips for next-generation gear have been Atheros and Airgo, said IDC analyst Celeste Crystal. Both companies' approaches use multiple antennas, but their approaches are otherwise mostly different, she said.

Crystal believes the EWC companies do want to hasten development of a standard because they know large enterprises won't invest in faster wireless LAN gear until it is standardized.

Even though the EWC brings together WWiSE and TGn Sync members, it's too soon to tell whether it will bring peace to high-speed Wi-Fi, according to Jarich of Current Analysis.

"You run into the potential of having three groups now," Jarich said.

A drawn-out standards process might even lead users to grab whatever is on the market, if demanding applications such as voice over Wi-Fi are widely adopted, he added.

"If it takes another two years, you're probably not going to have people waiting," Jarich said.

However, the Wi-Fi Alliance, which tests and certifies 802.11 products for interoperability, will wait.

"We are going to develop our certification program for [802.11n] consistent with the ratification of the IEEE standard," said Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance. "We're not in a position to certify products until the standard is ratified, because we just believe there are too many moving parts until that happens."

Meanwhile, one EWC member is putting real product behind the group's rhetoric. On Wednesday, Marvell Semiconductor Inc. announced it is already shipping a family of chipsets based on the EWC specification. The 88W8360 chipsets are intended for use in access points, PCs, set-top boxes, residential gateways and other consumer appliances, according to Marvell.

The chipsets are available in sample quantities and the company is working with equipment vendors to develop products, said Kishore Manghnani, general manager of Marvell's Broadband Home Business Unit. Consumer products could appear as soon as early next year, he said. The company believes that whatever the 802.11n standard looks like, Marvell will be able to upgrade the chipsets' firmware or software to meet it, Manghnani said.

REFERENCES:
Industry coalition hopes to break 802.11n deadlock, Oct. 10, 2005
Enhanced Wi-Fi gear heading downmarket, Jun. 20, 2005

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