New Wi-Fi standard back on track

Opposing groups compromise on standards specifications for faster Wi-Fi, with new proposal expected next week.

After months of squabbling, the new, faster Wi-Fi standard that got derailed late in 2005 could finally be back on track, say people involved in the standards process.

A revised draft of the specification known as 802.11n is expected to be introduced at the task group's meeting next week in Hawaii, and it's expected to get the required 75 percent approval vote to make it an official standards draft.

"Things are looking very promising," said Mike Pellon, vice president of standards at Motorola. "It looks like the fragmentation has passed. For the last couple of months, all the different parties involved have been pulling together."

If the rest of the 802.11n process continues to go as planned, products supporting the faster Wi-Fi technology could show up on the market in the next 12 to 18 months, he said.

The 802.11n working group was formed within the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) more than a year ago to establish a standard for the next generation of Wi-Fi technology called MIMO (multiple input/multiple output), which will quadruple data rates of wireless LANs.

This past spring, the standards became mired in squabbling between rival groups. One was led by Intel; the other by Airgo Networks, a small company with the only MIMO-based chips now shipping. The two groups eventually came to a deadlock after an Intel-backed proposal failed to move forward in the process. As a result, leaders in the IEEE instructed the two groups to form a joint proposal team to merge specifications from the two main proposals into a single draft of the standard.

But in October, Intel and 26 other companies threw a monkey wrench into the IEEE process when they announced the formation of a splinter group called the Enhanced Wireless Consortium, or EWC. Wi-Fi chipmakers Broadcom, Marvell Technology Group and Atheros Communications joined Intel in leading this new consortium. The group had planned to submit a proposal to the IEEE at its November meeting, when the joint proposal group was also expected to finalize its draft of the standard.

Striving for technical harmony
At the time the EWC was announced, several companies, including Airgo, voiced their concern that this new group would distract the industry and delay the standards work.

"We didn't want to see the process hijacked," said Greg Raleigh, CEO of Airgo. "All of the proposals out there are based on Airgo's technology, and we want to see a standard developed from an open process."

With full support from the major chip manufacturers, it seemed as though the EWC could move ahead on its own with or without an official IEEE standard. Instead of waiting for the standard to be ratified, which isn't expected until the beginning of 2007, device makers in the Intel group could have started building prestandard MIMO products with the assurance that

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