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Wireless spec approved, next under way

A standards body approves the 802.11g specification and starts work on another spec--802.11n--that promises to lead to even higher data-transmission speeds.

The cycle of increasing throughput in the wireless networking industry continued Thursday as a standards body approved a new specification and began work on another spec that promises to lead to even higher data-transmission speeds.

As expected, the Standards Board Review Committee of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) approved the 802.11g specification as a standard. Industry insiders saw the ratification as a rubber stamp because products using prestandard 802.11g-based components are already in the market and the latest version of the spec was seen as stable.

The standard will now have to pass interoperability tests by the Wi-Fi Alliance in order to be deemed universally compatible in products from all the different chip and product manufacturers. Those tests have been under way for some time and the group is expected to announce certification in the coming months.

Certified interoperability and the establishment of a standard are significant to the wireless-networking industry because they ensure that consumers are likely to get a similar experience whenever they use an approved wireless-networking product. Some have credited standards and interoperability testing as a major factor in the success of the wireless-networking market.

"Standards encourage mass production of devices and chips, which helps to bring prices down," said Allen Nogee, an analyst with research firm In-Stat/MDR. "Proprietary technologies don't usually get that."

Mike Bell, vice president of software at Apple Computer, agreed, adding that the 802.11g standard should help to alleviate any uncertainty in the market about 802.11g. Apple was one of the first manufacturers to support the 802.11b and 802.11g standards.

"You can't be an island," said Bell. "This is good for everyone."

The 802.11g standard allows wireless networks to transmit data at 54 megabits per second, uses the 2.4GHz radio band and is meant to be compatible with equipment based on the earlier 802.11b wireless standard. Wi-Fi lets people wirelessly access and share resources on a network.

Even before being approved as a standard, 802.11g technology has bolstered the growing global market for wireless-networking gear, according to a study done by The Dell'Oro Group. Products based on the specification accounted for 16 percent of the sector's revenue and 17 percent of shipments in the first quarter, researchers said.

Overall, worldwide revenue for wireless-networking equipment was $411 million in the first quarter, up 1 percent from the previous three-month period. Unit shipments for the first quarter rose 6 percent to 4.8 million, according to the report.

The establishment of the 802.11g standard is expected to result in an increase in products targeting the business market. More conservative companies, such as Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft, were hesitant in releasing 802.11g-based products because of earlier interoperability issues with prestandard products from other manufacturers.

"There was only one excuse for not making the move to 802.11g, and those discussions were largely a smoke screen," said Greg Joswiak, vice president of hardware product marketing at Apple. "That smoke screen is gone now."

Apple and other 802.11g-based product makers are expected to release updates for their products to meet with the 802.11g standard by the end of the month.

The 802.11b standard helped to bring the wireless networking industry together by giving it a common foundation to build on, and the 802.11a and 802.11g standards helped address the need for higher throughputs, said Nogee, but another standard will likely address a smaller market and just be "icing on the cake."

IEEE has informally assigned a group to investigate what needs and markets the next standard, 802.11n, should address, according to Brian Matthews, IEEE's publicity chair for 802.11. Throughput of the next standard hasn't been determined but is expected to be at least 100mbps.

"What exists today meets the needs of 90 percent of the market," said Nogee. "The more standards that are set, the more complex the market will become...It's debatable if people will even notice going from 54mbps to 100 mbps in most applications."