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Air Time: Will 802.11n Change Your World?

Last Thursday, the IEEE announced that the 802.11n Task Group (TGn) had
approved a draft of what may be the most significant new standard to come
out of IEEE in the past 10 years. Based largely on a specification developed
by the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC), an association of leading network
silicon developers, the proposal, which required a 75 percent vote for passage,
garnered 184 votes affirmative and 0 votes opposed, with 4 abstentions.

Airgo, the inventor of the MIMO magic on which 11n is based, voted in support of
this "compromise" that was made necessary when TGn was divided between
competing proposals despite the fact that the draft represents a clear failure
in its longstanding effort to influence the details of the final standard. Airgo
still stands to reap some licensing fees from its invention, but the company's
leadership position in the MIMO WLAN chip market has been dealt a serious blow.

Broadcom and Atheros wasted little time in capitalizing on the occasion, first
patting themselves on the back for their work in driving 11n, then announcing
products based on the hot-out-of-the-oven draft standard, and finally suggesting
that these chips would be compatible with the final standard. Never mind the fact
that the final standard is not likely to be approved for another 12 months. When
you get a vote of 184-0, you earn some market capital, and Broadcom and Atheros
are planning to spend it. Though Airgo deserves credit for conceding standards
defeat with considerable dignity, the company couldn't resist the temptation to rip
its competitors, stating in a press release that vender promises of products that
would be firmware upgradeable to the final standard are irresponsible and
misleading to consumers.

This criticism is a bit ironic, since Airgo's wireless router vendors have marketed
products based on its TrueMIMO chipsets as "Pre-N" for quite a long time. Still,
Airgo has a valid point. To suggest that the road to 802.11n won't have a few
potholes along the way is quite naive. Given the underlying complexity of this
technology, delivering 802.11n chipsets that are not only interoperable with each
other but also with legacy 802.11n standards will require significant effort.
Nonetheless, it's great to see Atheros and Broadcom, not to mention Marvel, Intel
and Airgo, getting ready to slug it out in the ultra-competitive market for wireless
silicon and wireless network reference designs. These new offerings will serve as
the basis for a whole new generation of product offerings that will have a dramatic
impact on both consumer and enterprise markets.

Given extremely high unit volumes, silicon vendors will make every effort to first
win new business in the home networking market. We've always been a little dubious
about the value of higher speed wireless data networking in the home in light of
Internet access connection speeds, which seldom exceed 5 Mbps. However, it's not
pure data networking or Internet access that is the end game for 802.11n. Rather,
it's the home entertainment market. Vendors were quick to point out that their new
silicon would be fast enough to support multiple concurrent HDTV video streams.
Based on our experience testing MIMO offerings from Airgo, we believe them. But as
is often the case in networking, the greatest challenges lie in software and
standardization. Despite making great interoperability strides over the past several
years, 802.11 is anything but plug and play. To get to the point where cable boxes,
televisions and home-entertainment centers can be seamlessly integrated into a
home network without turning for assistance to someone who has CWNA
certification will require lots of work and unprecedented cooperation among
companies that aren't always anxious to do so. But when it arrives--as it surely will-
-it's going to be real impressive and a joy for multimedia junkies everywhere. And
provided price points aren't excessive, product packaging that promises 100 Mbps
throughput will move plenty of boxes in a consumer culture where faster is always
better.