The Testing Before the Test

The Testing Before the Test

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Written By Eric Sandler

By Eric Griffith

April 28, 2004

Vendors that are nervous their 802.11 products will fail to get interoperability certification with the Wi-Fi Alliance can now get ‘pre-certified’ via the wireless lab at the University of New Hampshire.

The cost for companies to get a “Wi-Fi Certified” stamp of approval from the Wi-Fi Alliance on 802.11-based products isn’t cheap. The annual membership fee for companies is $25,000 alone, and to get certification testing the average cost starts at $5,000 per product tested — rates can go higher based on the type of product, whether it’s dual-band, etc.

Considering the cost to get the certification, the amount of products that fail to get it on the first try is staggering. According to the Alliance, 25 to 30% don’t make it through the first round. Plus, the vendors have to pay the fee every time a product goes back in for testing.

In an attempt to improve those statistics — as well as the turn around time to get certification — vendors can get “pre-certified.” That is, they submit products to a lab to be tested for interoperability well before the final check. Some of the Interoperability Certification Labs (ICL) that the Alliance uses run by Agilent provide provide this pre-certification service.

This month the Alliance has also given approval for the first time to an independent lab. The University of New Hampshire’s InterOperability Laboratory (UNH-IOL) is now an “authorized pre-certification program.”

“We’ve been doing this since before the Wi-Fi Alliance had a certification process,” says Gerard Goubert, who runs the Wireless lab for the UNH-IOL.

“The Alliance is a marketing entity — they exist to put the brand on [products] and get it to customers. We’re not looking for that — we’re there to help companies fix their implementations [of 802.11].”

The UNH-IOL is a non-profit organization that does testing in a number of technology areas, everything from DOCSIS cable modems to gigabit Ethernet. It creates industry consortiums for the various technologies, such as wireless. Membership for companies is $17,000 annually; with that fee a member can submit as many products as they like for testing, as schedules allow. There’s no extra charge for pre-cert testing. UNH-IOL membership is not required for the testing, but it is encouraged.

Members of the UNH-IOL Wireless Consortium include heavy-hitting companies like Atheros, Microsoft, HP, Proxim, and Cisco.

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Goubert is confident that his lab does more for its members — for less money — than the ICL labs. The UNH-IOL will prepare a detailed engineering report for vendors and doesn’t discontinue testing if something fails, which is how it works for the Alliance’s final certification.

“In the past we allowed companies to work with the labs to make minor modifications, to help them with the likelihood of passing,” says Alliance managing director Frank Hanzlik. “We tightened that up, we no longer allow that….products submitted are run through tests and if they can’t pass, they’re kicked back.”

He says the Agilent labs provide a report on what went wrong at this point in the testing: “It is in everyone’s interest to pass.” The retesting takes time however, and puts a strain on vendors with products that need a faster time to market.

The UNH and the Alliance have worked with each other for a while according to Hanzlik. So why is that lab now getting an official sign-off as a pre-certification center?

Goubert points at the tremendous crossover in their memberships and says a number of them probably pushed the Alliance to make this official — some are likely pushing to make the UNH-IOL a full certification lab for the Alliance.

The Alliance says it is making the pre-certification process more official to save time and money: “When [vendors] get product in the queue they should have had time to test their products and make their probability of [certification] success higher,” says Hanzlik.

The number of future certification testing failures is only likely to increase as the Alliance requires more standards be supported. Right now they test for interoperability with 802.11a, 11b, 11g as needed, and all flavors must support Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) for security. Soon they’ll be adding (WPA2) and advanced functions like 802.11e for Quality of Service as needed.

Goubert says the UNH-IOL is already working with these technologies and more in pre-certification testing. The lab is a voting member in the IEEE 802.11 Working Group that sets the standards.

The Alliance is likely to sanction other independent labs to do Wi-Fi pre-certification in other geographic areas in the future.

To date, over 1250 products from 200 member companies have received “Wi-Fi Certified” labels from the Wi-Fi Alliance. The non-profit Alliance was formed in 1999 under the name Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance or WECA, but changed its name to reflect the Wi-Fi branding it created for all things 802.11-based. The Alliance also has a certification program called Wi-Fi ZONE for public access hotspots.

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