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...

Dave Molta

January 30, 2006

4 Min Read
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Last Thursday, the IEEE announced that the 802.11n Task Group (TGn) hadapproved a draft of what may be the most significant new standard to comeout of IEEE in the past 10 years. Based largely on a specification developedby the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC), an association of leading networksilicon 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 ofthis "compromise" that was made necessary when TGn was divided betweencompeting proposals despite the fact that the draft represents a clear failurein its longstanding effort to influence the details of the final standard. Airgostill stands to reap some licensing fees from its invention, but the company'sleadership position in the MIMO WLAN chip market has been dealt a serious blow.

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

This criticism is a bit ironic, since Airgo's wireless router vendors have marketedproducts 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 fewpotholes along the way is quite naive. Given the underlying complexity of thistechnology, delivering 802.11n chipsets that are not only interoperable with eachother but also with legacy 802.11n standards will require significant effort.Nonetheless, it's great to see Atheros and Broadcom, not to mention Marvel, Inteland Airgo, getting ready to slug it out in the ultra-competitive market for wirelesssilicon and wireless network reference designs. These new offerings will serve asthe basis for a whole new generation of product offerings that will have a dramaticimpact on both consumer and enterprise markets.

Given extremely high unit volumes, silicon vendors will make every effort to firstwin new business in the home networking market. We've always been a little dubiousabout the value of higher speed wireless data networking in the home in light ofInternet access connection speeds, which seldom exceed 5 Mbps. However, it's notpure 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 newsilicon would be fast enough to support multiple concurrent HDTV video streams.Based on our experience testing MIMO offerings from Airgo, we believe them. But asis often the case in networking, the greatest challenges lie in software andstandardization. Despite making great interoperability strides over the past severalyears, 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 ahome network without turning for assistance to someone who has CWNAcertification will require lots of work and unprecedented cooperation amongcompanies 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. Andprovided price points aren't excessive, product packaging that promises 100 Mbpsthroughput will move plenty of boxes in a consumer culture where faster is alwaysbetter.For the enterprise, the end game is similar. Craig Mathias, noted industry analystand principal of The Farpoint Group, characterizes MIMO as perhaps the mostimportant radio technology ever and asserts that MIMO will drive a market shiftaway from Ethernet as an access medium, with wireless becoming the defaultnetwork connectivity for essentially everyone. I agree with Mathias, but thetransition won't necessarily be a smooth one. It will take a while for enterprise-class 802.11n APs (access points) to make their way to market, especially fromCisco, which seldom rushes unbaked network products to market. It's also likelythat this announcement will cause some stagnation in the existing enterprise Wi-Fimarket, especially for organizations planning very large rollouts during the comingyear. Vendors will feel pressure to not only quickly release 802.11n products butalso guarantee conformance to the final standard.

The final market worth following as relates to 802.11n is the market for wirelessclient devices. Although Intel has played an important role in driving EWC and thedraft standard, it's not clear how quickly the company will shift to 802.11n as thedefault radio module for notebook computers. After all, it hasn't been all that longthat Intel has offered a viable multiband 802.11ag offering. Before long, thedefinition of Centrino will be changing, but how soon that will happen is far fromclear.

In the end, one can't help but marvel at the technical accomplishment representedby 802.11n. When you consider how far the WLAN market has come in so short aperiod of time, it's a tribute to scientific discovery, one more example oftechnology offering great opportunities for innovation.

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