Intel calls the Wi-Fi shots

By touting its own version of a key specification, the chip giant may be rendering a formal standards-setting process moot.

As they often do when they're not happy with the way things are going, a collection of tech-heavy hitters led by Intel may be trying to take control of an important Wi-Fi standards process.

Monday's announcement of a group called the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC), led by Wi-Fi chipmakers Intel, Broadcom, Marvell and Atheros Communications, is the latest example of a long tradition in tech: The big guys, one way or another, usually end up calling the shots on standards.

The seeming momentum of this Intel-led group comes after a long and fractious debate over what should be in a standard called 802.11n. And it has some wondering if the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), which usually leads standards debates, and perhaps even the industry's traditional standards-setting process, are becoming irrelevant.

"It's a very good question," said Craig Mathias, a principal analyst at the Fairpoint Group. "The whole process has definitely gotten more political over the years. The technology used in this standard is the future of wireless (local area networks). It's very important for companies involved to get their market positioning up-front and establish themselves as players as soon as possible."

News.context

What's new:
A group of companies led by Intel has created a consortium to try to accelerate efforts to create a new Wi-Fi standard.

Bottom line:
Some analysts wonder if the IEEE and the traditional standards-setting process are becoming irrelevant. Others worry that squabbles between rival consortiums could lead to a stalemate and deepen an already polarized situation.

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The 802.11n working group was formed within the IEEE about a year ago to establish a standard for a new Wi-Fi technology called MIMO (multiple input/multiple output) that will quadruple data rates of wireless LANs.

The 802.11n specifications are critical to the development of the Wi-Fi market, which needs higher speeds and larger ranges to accommodate more consumer electronics products on the network. Critics argue that the Intel proposal is too PC-centric, while the originally IEEE-sanctioned group is working on something that is more inclusive of consumer electronics devices.

The process has been mired in squabbling between rival groups: One led by Intel and the other by Airgo Networks, a small company with the only MIMO-based chips now shipping. Earlier this year, the two groups came to a deadlock after an Intel-backed proposal failed to get the necessary votes to push it forward. Since then, members of the two groups have been working to develop a new joint proposal.

Intel and 26 other companies lobbed a curveball into the IEEE process when they announced the formation of their group. A committee still operating within the traditional standards process also plans to submit a proposal to the IEEE at its November meeting.

The Intel group claims that it wants to help accelerate the IEEE process and get the standard back on track. But at the moment, it's unclear whether the splinter group's proposal will actually speed up the process.

Some analysts worry that the squabble could easily become a stalemate and deepen an already polarized situation. The new group initially rebuffed Airgo, which pioneered and leads the market in MIMO antenna technology. Several mobile-handset manufacturers, such as Nokia and Motorola, have not joined the Intel group because they believe that its specification is too PC-centric.

A similar situation has played out with other developing standards, such as ultra wideband, a short-range wireless technology that rivals Bluetooth. Problems with UWB stem from a stalemate between groups led by Motorola and Intel.

"The ultra wideband standards process has definitely gotten bogged down in politics," said Sam Lucero, a senior analyst at ABI Research. "And by my estimates, it has completely stalled out. Intel doesn't want Motorola to get too far ahead in the market. It's very similar to what's happening in 802.11n, where Intel doesn't want to see Airgo get too far ahead."

But some wonder if an IEEE stamp of approval is even necessary for companies like Intel and Broadcom to gain an edge in a market that promises to generate billions of dollars in revenue in the next several years.

Instead of waiting for the official standard, which isn't expected to be completed until the beginning of 2007, companies in the Intel group can start building prestandard MIMO products with the assurance that products will at least be compatible with those from market leaders like Intel and Broadcom. Products could ship as early as the fourth quarter of 2006, according to Philip Solis, a senior analyst at ABI Research.

In the end, the specification that gets a critical mass of products behind it becomes what everyone works with, regardless of whether an official standards-setting group likes it.

Some worry that such behind-the-scenes work unfairly excludes some companies. "Intel and Broadcom started drafting this proposal in March," said Nico van Waes, senior research engineer at Nokia. "And in the July time frame, they came to several companies and said not to tell anyone that they had this proposal."

He said Nokia originally didn't join the Intel effort because it was worried that the chip giant was trying to bypass the open-standards process. Indeed, competitors have complained that the secret work has given Intel and the other companies an unfair lead in developing silicon for their proposal.

"The ultimate value of MIMO is doing everything on one network that includes PCs, TVs, cell phones and small multimedia players," said Greg Raleigh, CEO of Airgo. "If the spec only includes what was expedient over six months ago for a few silicon suppliers to implement, then the consumer will go without for years to come. This is definitely not the way the open process is intended to work."

"What Intel and the others have done may or may not be illegal, but this is definitely not the process that people at the IEEE had in mind for developing the standard."
--Craig Mathias, principal analyst, Fairpoint Group

Intel, however, said those fears are unfounded. "The purpose of the EWC is to accelerate the process," said Amy Martin, an Intel spokeswoman. "We have a cross section of companies, and we plan to build consensus within the IEEE. We felt like this was the right way go about doing that."

"The goal is to make this an open standard," Martin added. "That's why there are 27 companies involved, and more are invited to join."

Intel, Broadcom, Atheros, and Marvell have opened their coalition to all comers. But some IEEE members are still concerned by the steps Intel has taken to try to get its standard approved.

At the very least, analysts say it is bad public relations, especially for Intel, which is already involved in the stalled UWB standards process.

"It just doesn't look good," Fairpoint's Mathias said. "What Intel and the others have done may or may not be illegal, but this is definitely not the process that people at the IEEE had in mind for developing the standard."

Several analysts said this is nothing new and that the self-interest of individual companies often bleeds into the standards-making process without egregiously damaging the industry.

"This happens all the time," said Dave Passmore, an analyst at Burton Group. "When you have working prototypes and real products in the market, it gets harder and more costly to make changes so that it complies with the standard. Nobody wants to do that. So infighting and politics is just life."

For the most part, companies want to see some sort of agreement sooner rather than later.

"We just want to see companies come together," said Nokia's van Waes. "So if the (Intel-led) proposal helps focus companies on the standards process, that is a good thing. I wouldn't say that it has slowed things down or confused things. But we'll see how flexible everyone is going forward."

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