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Do Vendors Know Why You Want 802.11n?

Besides regular vendor briefings and the occasional trade show, as time allows I also make an effort to sit on the consumer side of the sales process and attend vendor webinars in my beat area. I recently attended a webinar on 802.11n (by a vendor that shall remain unnamed) that provided a good technical overview of the principle technical features of this upcoming IEEE standard. The director of product marketing manager who led the webinar surprised me with his first multiple-choice survey question: "What is the main reason you are interested in 802.11n". Of the five choice he listed, there appeared to be at least one obvious one missing. Apparently the rest of the webinar participants felt the same, as their responses appeared to take the leader of the webinar off-guard.
The vendor had self-selected the audience in regards to the 802.11n topic, so one would expect a meaningful response to this first question. But a poorly designed question, in front of a live audience, can lead to unexpected results. The choices were: (a) To support a larger number of users; (b) To support a larger coverage area; (c) To support greater network throughput(d) To support voice or video (e) Other.

Perhaps the vendor culled the most perceptive audience possible because not one person voted for option (b). It's well-known that 802.11n provides better coverage than the legacy 802.111 technologies at their respective frequencies, and it's one of the reasons pre-802.11n products have sold so well to consumers. But it was encouraging for me to see that enterprise IT departments are learning that coverage is not the predominate concern regarding Wi-Fi deployments.

"Supporting more users" garnered only 5% of the vote, which supports my long-running stance that most enterprises aren't concerned about capacity in terms of the numbers of users. This only becomes a concern in large lecture halls, and large open public spaces such as libraries and convention centers.

Choices (c) and (d) both earned 30% of the vote. The benefits of 802.11n in regards to network throughput are clear, with virtually all vendors claiming a 5x increase. Voice and video were lumped together in (d), which is unfortunate. Video naturally requires more bandwidth, with regular MPEG-4 standard definition streams in the 2 Mbps range. But voice requires much less throughput and operates fine even in 802.11b-only environments. What 802.11n does offers Vo-Fi is less air-time competition as regular data users migrate from 2.4 GHz 802.11b/g to 5 GHz 802.11n.

The kicker was the "Other" category, capturing a whopping 35% of the vote. What choice did the vendor miss in designing this question? It was obvious, and the presenter mentioned it while commenting on the survey results: better and more reliable coverage. With MIMO multipath now becomes an aid rather than hindrance. There will be less dead spots, and those areas that had marginal coverage will now enjoy a stable link. This has been one of Cisco's major marketing points, and as mentioned in an earlier blog, they have a slide deck that discusses how reliability and predictability has improved by a factor of two.

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