802.11n Draft Approved

802.11n Draft Approved

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Written By Eric Sandler

By Eric Griffith

January 20, 2006

UPDATED: Chipmakers are ready to power high-speed and possibly interoperable wireless products this year; look for final specification in ’07.

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Looks like calling a product “Pre-N” (as in 802.11n) this year won’t be seen as a bad thing.

As was expected, yesterday at the IEEE 802.11 Working Group meeting in Kona, Hawaii, the 802.11n Task Group (TGn) approved the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC) proposal for the future high-speed wireless standard.

The EWC was formed last year to accelerate the IEEE 802.11n development process.Michael Rude, Director of Technical Marketing for Israeli fabless chip designer Metalink, was his company’s representative at the meeting. He says that if TGn had continued with just the Joint Proposal (JP) Group working to codify previous proposals, “it wouldn’t have happened as rapidly… it’s possible the outcome could have been the same, but from the timeframe perspective, no way. [EWC] was the catalyst.”

The JP adopted the EWC’s proposal as its own last week, and hammered out any last-minute details in time to offer it to the gathered TGn. Not only was it approved, but it was a unanimous vote of 184 to 0 (with four abstaining).

Now that there’s an approved 802.11n draft, EWC is done, right? Not according to Bill McFarland, CTO at Atheros Communications and one of the leaders of the EWC. He says the group will continue on, as the charter specifies it won’t disband until 11n is ratified. The goal is to get to that point within a year — something he says might not be possible without lobbying by the EWC.

“EWC can participate by talking to other companies with concerns, proposing technical amendments, aiding in running simulations, and so forth,” says McFarland. “It can give both technical input and be a kind of lobbying force to ensure that people rapidly settle on a final, ratified version.” With a large membership of over 50 companies, including all the big name chipmakers — EWC was launched in stealth last summer by Intel, Atheros, Broadcom and Marvell — the ‘six degrees of separation’ rule puts the EWC in close contact with just about everyone in the Wi-Fi industry, let alone in TGn.

In the IEEE, the draft now moves to the letter ballot stage where all members read the draft and can comment on what they like and what they want to change. This process will likely take at least a year — the EWC won’t be changing the way the IEEE and TGn work, just speeding along any members with conflicting goals. McFarland says an example of that would be that companies with proprietary products, or even voting members who are not making newer 802.11 products, may want to slow down the process to give their products more shelf life, but he hopes the unanimous vote for the draft means “we’ve crossed that bridge.”

Chips Ahoy

While the draft has at least a year before it becomes official, chipmakers were well ahead of the announcement in some cases.

Marvell announced its 88W836X chip family in October 2005 just as the EWC went public. Today, it said it will be the first shipping silicon that supports the draft specification. They expect customers who’ve been sampling the 88W836X to have products on shelves as soon as March.

Atheros was showing MIMO chips dubbed XSPAN at the CES2006 show earlier this month.

Broadcom announced its draft-11n chips yesterday to coincide with the 802.11n draft approval. The line will be called Intensi-fi, and includes several chips including the MAC, radio and wireless network processor. They are sampling with customers now.

All of the above use multiple streams of data to get speeds of 300Mbps or higher. The approved 802.11n draft, in fact, spells out data rates as high as 600Mbps in some cases. 802.11n will also have backward compatibility with current Wi-Fi products. Metalink’s Rude says, “That interoperability is a market requirement that’s not questioned — it’s a given.” Chances are good (though not guaranteed) that such “Pre-N” products using the above chips will be software upgradeable to the final 802.11n standard when it’s finalized.

Consumer products using the technology that will power 802.11n — primarily the multiple-in, multiple-out tech called MIMO — have been out for months, mostly powered by chips from Airgo Networks, which helped developed the MIMO that will be used in 802.11n.

That company has stated that any chipmakers claiming they can upgrade products from the draft to final 11n are irresponsible and “may mislead consumers who do not fully understand the IEEE process,” and that several rounds of review are needed before such claims should be made.

“Firmware upgradeability is an outrageous assertion to be made at this point,” says Dave Borison, Director of Product Marketing for Airgo. He says consumers who buy products with chips making that claim should demand a guarantee for replacement products (though it’s only likely consumers would even know of such a thing if the manufacturers, such as Linksys, D-Link, Netgear and others market the products that way.)

Airgo intellectual property (IP) — MIMO patents — will be part of 802.11n, but under IEEE rules, a company that is part of the specification development process is asked to submit assurance that it will license its IP to other companies using the standard in a fashion that is  reasonable and non-discriminatory (RAND).

“Anyone voting should make that assurance,” says McFarland, “but that’s not to say they can’t charge [for their IP]… they just can’t choose their friends and enemies and not license to some.”

Airgo’s Borison said he couldn’t say how things would work out with IP licensing, since anything could happen in the standards process, but he feels there should be no issues if things progress as they have in TGn. He believes that having a final 802.11n standard helps, rather than hurts, Airgo’s industry standing, saying, “Having other players [in MIMO] just adds credibility to the market we created.” Products based on Airgo’s third generation chips are selling now, and Borison says the fourth gen will be ready for true 802.11n compliance and Wi-Fi Alliance interoperability testing as soon as the specification is ratified.  

Airgo originally balked at the EWC’s plans, saying the group was trying to circumvent the IEEE’s standards process. In the interest of moving things along, it did eventually vote in the affirmative when the JP accepted the EWC proposal.

In a statement released last night, however, Airgo managed another parting shot at the EWC, saying the draft approval vote “signals an end to the special interest group politics that disrupted standards progress this Fall.”

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