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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 their gear would at least be compatible with chips developed by market leaders Intel and Broadcom.

But November came and went, and no proposal was agreed upon. Behind the scenes, it became evident that device makers, even those within the EWC, still wanted the IEEE stamp of approval.

As a result, Intel and the others began working more closely with the joint proposal team, Raleigh said. This week, the two sides are expected to finalize details of the joint proposal draft that will be presented to the task group next week. Intel has confirmed that it has been working closely with the joint proposal team, as it had said it would when the EWC was formed.

"The fragmentation that was happening wouldn't have been good for the market."
--Mike Pellon, vice president of standards, Motorola

"The EWC has been in discussions with the joint proposal group to harmonize all the different technical points," said Amy Martin, a spokeswoman for Intel. "There has been a lot of negotiating back and forth to find a solution that fits all parties."

Device manufacturers such as Motorola say it's important that the standards work has remained within the IEEE framework.

"The fragmentation that was happening wouldn't have been good for the market," Pellon said. "A lot of the success of Wi-Fi is because different suppliers can make products that work together, so that when you go to an airport or a hotel that has Wi-Fi, you don't have to worry if your wireless card is compatible. It just works."

One of the key areas of contention between the EWC and the joint proposal team had to do with specifications for mobile devices. Several mobile-handset manufacturers, including Nokia and Motorola, did not initially join the Intel group because they believed that its specification was too PC-centric.

The higher transmission speeds that should result from 802.11n are supposed to help equipment makers support more multimedia applications, like voice and video, over Wi-Fi. Streaming content requires faster speeds, which 802.11n promises to deliver.

But handset makers wanted to make sure that these multimedia applications also worked on their mobile devices, which have strict size and power constraints. The initial EWC specifications did not take these issues into account, Raleigh said. But after a lot of work between the two groups, the proposal that will be presented to the task group next week will support low power and specifications for small screens.

"A lot of horse trading went on," he said. "We're pleased to see the progress that has been made, and we are thrilled to see the standard back on track in an open forum."

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