Wi-fi standard: rivals in looming showdown

Two variants of the emerging 802.11n standard are developing. Ephraim Schwartz reports

Battle lines are being drawn over the forthcoming WLAN standard IEEE 802.11n, which promises speeds of 100Mbit/s-plus and increased range.

Behind a seemingly innocuous announcement last week, of a new wireless router from Netgear, lies a major WLAN industry schism that pits the likes of Cisco, Intel and Sony against Nokia, Texas Instruments and Airgo Networks, the chipmaker for Netgear.

Vendors looking to increase ever-eroding margins on commodity 802.11a, b, and g gear have been pushing for higher speeds and a faster ratification of 802.11n. Tired of the wait, Airgo Networks designed its own 802.11n-like chip set to be used first by Netgear in its RangeMax 240 router, which has a maximum performance of 240Mbit/s.

Although it is backward-compatible with 802.11a, b, and g, it is still unclear whether Airgo’s MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output) Gen3 chip set will work with the actual 802.11n standard, says Dave Borison, director of product management at Airgo.

Meanwhile, a group calling itself the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC), with members such as Atheros, Cisco, Intel, Symbol and Toshiba, this year began developing its own high-performance standard that it will submit to the IEEE as the 802.11n spec.

It is expected that EWC members will manufacture their own products using this spec prior to its ratification.

Although there is no assurance that the EWC spec will become the standard, Bill McFarland, CTO of chipmaker Atheros and key technical lead for the EWC specification, says products built from the EWC specification will be compatible with other EWC members’ products.

Despite the apparent schism, there seems to be some movement towards reconciliation among the warring parties. The EWC has met with some of the IEEE working group companies and, as a result, will resubmit a spec that addresses some of their concerns.

The splintering among the usually single-minded wi-fi industry players has prompted Gartner to warn customers to wait before buying 802.11m gear.

Garter analyst Ken Dulaney advises enterprise customers that there is plenty of time to wait for the standard, and that neither Airgo nor a future EWC product is stable or even necessary.