Deconstructing the draft 802.11n Wi-Fi hype

You'll soon see a raft of Wi-Fi products on store shelves that say they are compliant with a new draft of the 802.11n wireless standard. Wireless networking is often confusing, and draft standards are even more so. If you're shopping for Wi-Fi gear, should you care?

Some background: Linksys recently became the latest company to officially announce a line of super-fast Wi-Fi products based on Draft 1 of the IEEE's proposed 802.11n standard. (Buffalo, D-Link, and Netgear earlier announced such products; at this writing, though, we're still waiting to see the D-Link units that were supposed to be out in April.) Update: the draft has been sent back to the drawing board following the May 2 announcement that it failed to muster the 75 percent approval needed to move along in the ratification process.

A couple of points: Fast Wi-Fi isn't brand spanking new. Linksys itself (and other companies) already had products touting ethernet-type speeds -- in Linksys's case, the SRX400 line -- based on the same MIMO technology that is the basis for 802.11n.

But vendors have told us that Draft N products bring at least two new things to the table: a tad more real-world speed -- up to 150 mbps for these first products, compared with a maximum of 125 mbps for the last, non-Draft-N products (PC World is in the process of testing to verify these performance claims) -- and compliance, not with an actual standard but with the initial draft for a standard.

So again, the question is, should you care? And here I have to join an increasing chorus of pundits saying no. Compliance with this draft does not confer the benefits that make a standard useful. I've heard a lot of vendor presentations on Draft N, and in my view, these products are more about jockeying for mind share and market position than anything else. Even if everything vendors claim about performance is true (and that's a big if), it certainly doesn't shape up as a big improvement over the pre-Draft-N stuff we already have.

The skinny on standards

Technical standards are supposed to solve problems for both businesses and consumers. In a perfect world, they keep competing businesses from spending a lot of time and effort reinventing the wheel, while at the same time growing the market for said wheel, so that everyone can sell more of them. On the consumer side, a standard means less confusion -- you know that no matter whose wheel you buy, it will work with the next guy's standard-compliant wheel. And the fact that multiple vendors are selling the standard-compliant wheel tends to keep prices in check.

But a draft standard is a work in progress. That means, for starters, that some technical issues remain unresolved -- issues that may seriously impact the way a product works. There are already reports of issues relating to how Draft N-compliant networks handle neighboring 802.11g and b networks -- an echo of the old "bad neighbor" technology problem caused by early 802.11g products that used channel bonding to boost performance.

Interoperability unknown

Draft N compliance carries no guarantee of interoperability, at least at the level of performance that 802.11n is supposed to deliver. The Wi-Fi Alliance isn't going to be doing any 802.11n interoperability testing (as it does for all finalized 802.11 standards) until the new standard is finalized, so the only thing you can be reasonably sure of is that Draft N products from different vendors will work at 802.11g speeds. But if that were good enough, you would probably save a lot of money by simply buying cheap G gear, and not bother with Draft N products in the first place.

Despite the interoperability issue, at least some Draft N-compliant products (most likely those based on chips from the same supplier) could still work together at high speed. But you have no guarantee that they will, and no good way of knowing which ones do and which don't.

You may remember that in the months before the 802.11g standard was finalized, there was a rush of pre-802.11g products, almost all of which were guaranteed by vendors to be firmware-upgradable to the final standard. But that's not the case here. The 802.11g standard was only a few months shy of final adoption when the pre-G products hit; no one expects 802.11n to be finalized before another year at least.

No upgrade guarantee

More important, no vendor is promising upgradability to the final standard. And that's the technology you'll want, because only when 802.11n is final will it start appearing in the types of consumer electronics that can use its bandwidth -- devices for moving multiple high-def video streams wirelessly from room to room.

While no one is promising firmware upgradability to the final standard, I am nevertheless hearing a lot about firmware upgrades in general, upgrades that will be made available online as the draft evolves. For most people, though, checking for and performing firmware upgrades is right up there with bathroom cleaning as a fun thing you like to do on a regular basis.

But that's what you're signing up for if you buy into the Draft N hype: no guarantees of compatibility or upgradability, best performance assured only if all your network gear is from the same vendor, and lots of firmware upgrades.

Built-in bottleneck

And did I mention that most of the Draft N routers I'm seeing come with a built-in bottleneck for wired/wireless networks in the form of 10/100 ethernet? Only Netgear has a gigabit ethernet Draft N router at this writing -- and, by the way, Netgear has two Draft N lines featuring chips from different vendors. We'll be checking on whether they interoperate, but note that Netgear will not be the only vendor launching multiple Draft N lines that may or may not be based on the same chips.

I'm not saying these products aren't fast; again, we're waiting for our own test results to evaluate performance. If Draft N products are as fast as vendors are claiming, then they may be a perfectly fine choice for people who just want a speedy wireless network, are willing to rely on a single product line, and don't care whether they can later build out their high-performance networks with equipment from several vendors.

But I am saying that from a user point of view, there's nothing I'm hearing thus far that would make a Draft N-compliant product significantly different from other fast Wi-Fi products that make no claims whatsoever regarding forthcoming or draft standards. All the Draft N hype in the world won't turn a draft into a real standard.

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