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IEEE approves EWC 802.11n as first draft

In October 1942, the pivotal battle for control of North Africa took place on the planes of Al Alamein in western Egypt. The Allied forces, led by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, defeated the Nazi forces led by General Erwin Rommel. In a speech on November 10, 1942, Winston Churchill referred to the Battle of Al Alamein within the larger context of the war against Germany, saying, "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." It is the same with the first draft of the 802.11n standard which was unanimously (184-0, with four abstentions) approved by the IEEE last week. The approval will prompt vendors to accelerate shipments of pre-802.11n compliant equipment in mid-2006 (see story #4), even if the final specification will not be ratified until sometime in 2007.

In what must be regarded as a setback for MIMO pioneer Airgo, the IEEE's task group voted to make the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC) proposal its first draft (see "Background"). EWC members Broadcom, Atheros and Marvell were quick out of the gate with announcements of the release of products based on the approved draft.

802.11n APs and client devices should offer a real-world rate of around 100 Mbps, which is double that of 802.11g gear (802.11n's theoretical speed is about 300 Mbps). The technology also offers enhanced range, backward compatibility with existing 802.11a/b/g kit, greater reliability and improved resistance to signal interference. Airgo CEO Greg Raleigh, however, warns that we should not expect robust, interoperable equipment too soon. "Having something that meets the draft spec means nothing--it will only be interoperable after the spec is ratified and then the kit [must be] certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance... That could be 2007," he said.

The year 2007 shapes up as a very interesting year: Intel promises to deliver WiMax-enabled laptops by 2007 to support mobile roaming among WiMax base stations and fixed wireless broadband links over several kilometers.

For more on the 802.11n draft:
- see this ElectronicNews report
- and the EWC site

BACKGROUND: The unanimous vote accepting the 802.11n Joint Proposal specification took place during the IEEE's bimonthly meeting in Kona, Hawaii. During the later part of 2004 and most of 2005, there was a pitched battle over the specifications of 802.11n between two powerful coalitions--the WWiSE consortium, backed by Motorola, Airgo, Broadcom, Conexant and others; and TGn Sync, which had support from Intel, Atheros, QUALCOMM, Sony and more. With the battle in stalemate, a third coalition--the Enhanced Wireless Consortium, or EWC--consisting of breakaway companies from the two existing coalitions was created last August. It was led by Intel, Atheros and Broadcom, and its goal was to minimize the influence of Airgo on the final specifications.

It was a Machiavellian move: Airgo pioneered MIMO technology, and the technology was central to both WWiSE and TGn Sync proposals. Airgo already enjoys then lion's share of the pre-802.11n market, and an endorsement of a specification inspired by its technology would give it an additional boost. The EWC proposal also incorporates MIMO at its core, but it is not as close to Airgo's version of MIMO as the other two proposals were, thus forcing owners of Airgo's pre-802.11n equipment--and those who contemplate buying it now--to take into account the fact that they will likely have to engage in costly and elaborate upgrades once the EWC-based 802.11n specifications are ratified in 2007.

Airgo agreed that there was a need to move beyond the WWiSE-TGn Sync stalemate, but its cool reaction to the IEEE draft decision was unmistakable. For one, it came out against promoting technologies as firmware upgradeable to the final 802.11n specification at this point in time. "While most within the 11n task group agree that it will take just over a year to move from Draft 1.0 to .11n ratification, it is debatable as to when the draft will be stable enough to begin designing firmware upgradeable chipsets," the company said in a statement. "Claims that chip sets based on any early draft will be firmware upgradeable to the final 11n specification are irresponsible, and may mislead consumers who do not fully understand the IEEE process."

The company's statement continued: "The draft will undergo several more rounds of review and revisions before it is stable enough to guarantee firmware upgradeability to the final ratified standard. More importantly, it will be impossible for customers to be assured of interoperability until the Wi-Fi Alliance begins such testing and certification after Q107."

As Churchill said, "This is not the end..."

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