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Air Time: 802.11n: Good Luck

Industry alliances have enjoyed a long history as faithful advocates of member interests. The Wi-Fi Alliance is particularly notable. Conceived by its six founding members primarily as a marketing organization that would promote a catchy brand-name, it has been successful beyond expectations. Its moniker, a clever play on "hi-fi" audio systems, is now more broadly recognized than its namesake. Today, seven years into the alliance's successful run, it's viewed not only as an effective marketing machine but also as a de facto standards body. That it's been able to navigate that minefield is due to a good amount of skill and a little bit of luck.

The latest landmine the alliance is dancing around involves 802.11n, the most important lettered standard to ever come through 802.11. Its technical foundation elements--MIMO and OFDM--represent two of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of wireless data. Combined, they deliver 10 times better performance and greatly increased range. At least that's the theory. In the real world, products rushed to market under the "Pre-N" designation have sold well--In-Stat estimates more than 300,000 units shipped during Q206--but have been dogs when it comes to performance and interoperability. The alliance's announcement of plans to certify 11n products in the first half of 2007 provides what both vendors and customers have sorely needed: a de facto standard.

Conventional wisdom suggests that enterprise IT professionals can safely ignore the drama of 11n, but that's not entirely correct. Although 11n will be hugely important in the next decade, few enterprises need it today. Yes, the added performance and capacity might be helpful in a few leading-edge installations and the increased range would make it easier for those more worried about covering dead spots than delivering ultra high performance. But for the most part, today's 11a and 11g standards have adequate horsepower to support mainstream applications. For the enterprise, system integration, security and mobility issues are far more important than capacity and range. Still, the 11n silicon that makes its way into next year's notebook computers will impact enterprise WLAN infrastructure decisions for years to come.

Consumer market dynamics are different. Atheros, Broadcom and Marvel have all delivered draft-n products, now found in products from dLink, Linksys, Netgear and others--though most of these products should have been labeled "proprietary beta." However, the newest generation, tweaked for performance and interoperability, represent a significant advance over 11g. Ironically, with even the best home Internet connections still topping out at 10 Mbps, few users need the added power. For most of us, 11n won't deliver on its promise until we see broader adoption, especially by home entertainment manufacturers.

If all goes according to plan, the IEEE's 11n task group (TGn) will navigate through 12,000 comments on the initial draft standard, reconcile the issues, and deliver a stable 2.0 draft by spring. That could happen, but it's no sure thing. The process could drag out until mid-year or later, putting the alliance in the position of certifying 11n products without a draft standard. Even so, a baseline certification could be established to address the most critical compatibility issues.