Industry Move to 100M WiFi Hits a Bump

Those who enjoy intrigue may be quite satisfied with developments in the WiFi market. Two years ago, vendors started working on a standard, dubbed 802.11n, to boost the top transmission speed from 54M bps to 100M bps. That work developed into a deadlock between two competing groups: World-Wide Spectrum Efficiency (WWiSE) and TGn Sync.

As those vendors were working on a proposal to combine the two approaches, a third option was thrown into the ring by a group called the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC). “At the moment, there certainly is a lot of confusion about how the 802.11n standard will evolve,” said Allen Nogee, a principal analyst with market research firm In-Stat/MDR Inc.

Driving Interest

A couple of factors have been driving interest in higher speed WLANs. First, more devices are being connected to these networks. In corporations, the number of mobile users is growing as employees are being outfitted with laptops and handheld devices. At home, users are now connecting their PCs to TVs and audio systems, and moving digital music and video from device to device. Another factor is applications are becoming more complex; voice and video are less tolerant of bandwidth fluctuations than data transmissions and therefore require more bandwidth.

At the beginning of the year, potential ways to boost WiFi’s top speed emerged. The WWISE group recommended using the 20-MHz channel that is available throughout most of the world for wireless data transmissions, new antennas, and changes to the WiFi media access control (MAC) layer to boost throughput to 135M bps. WWiSE members included Airgo Network, Broadcom, Conexant Systems, STMicroelectronics and Texas Instruments.

The TGN Sync camp, which featured Agere Systems, Atheros Communications, Intel, Sony and Qualcomm, proposed expanding the channel bandwidth from 20 MHz to 40 MHz. This change would boost maximum throughput to 315M bps but would cut the number of available channels from 22 to 11 in the 5-GHz band.

Spurned Suitors

During the year, the two groups courted favor among IEEE members, who are responsible for ratifying WiFi standards. At the end of the summer, the time came to vote on the 802.11n standard, but neither camp had sufficient support (75 percent of the vote is needed for passage) to gain an IEEE endorsement. The two groups then announced plans to develop a joint proposal that would meld key components from each approach. “At least initially, the vendors seemed pretty confident that they would be able to bring the two different approaches together,” In-Stat/MDR’s Nogee told TechNewsWorld.

That step did not satiate the EWC supporters. “Vendors such as Intel felt that the standards process had dragged on so long that they could no longer wait for the IEEE to come up with one so they moved on their own,” noted Jean Kaplan, an industry analyst with market research firm International Data Corp.

Consequently, the third option emerged. The EWC standard, which supports speeds up to 600M bps, includes Space Time Block Coding (STBC) and beamforming features, which are geared to improving the range for wireless products and enhancing support for multimedia applications.

An Influential Group

Initially, 27 companies came out in support of the proposal, including four — Atheros, Broadcom, Intel, and Marvell Technology Group Inc. — that hold the lion’s share of the WiFi chipset market. These firms are starting to build EWC-compliant WiFi chipsets and expect that EWC-compliant products will reach the market during the fourth quarter of 2006.

At the moment, it appears that the stalemate between TGn Sync and WWiSE will be transformed into a stand-off between a Joint Proposal based on TGn Sync and WWiSE and the EWC’s work. “It doesn’t appear likely that the two sides will get together on a common standard in the near term,” IDC’s Kaplan told TechNewsWorld.

Rather than technical differences, some see the issue as more political. “Just about everything application and device is being enhanced to support wireless connections so there is a lot at stake for the vendors,” stated Craig Mathias, founder of wireless market research firm Farpoint Group. On the surface, vendors would seem to gain little from supporting standard interfaces, but these specifications include components that are based on specific vendors’ intellectual property, and these suppliers collect licensing royalties as companies develop compliant products.

Not So Fast

The battle between those factions has already caused the 802.11n standard to take much longer to develop than previous WiFi specifications. Industry observers thought the standard would be done at the end of 2005 and standard products would start to arrive in early 2006. In a best case scenario, the standard could be approved near the end of 2006 with products arriving the following year, although there is also likelihood that no standard will emerge.

If no standard gains the necessary votes, what impact will that have on the market? “I don’t know if the lack of a standard will cause much of a problem,” Farpoint Group’s Mathias told TechNewsWorld. “There are eight different physical layers used for WiFi and that variety has not negatively impacted product sales.”

Others feel that the lack of a standard could make it more difficult for vendors to drive down costs for 802.11n products. It’s easier for vendors to spread their operating costs over a single version of a product rather than multiple options, which would be the case if the joint proposal and the EWC work gained acceptance.

That is one of the reasons why some analysts expect the various factions to eventually coalesce around a single standard. “Eventually, there will be an 802.11n standard, but the key question now, said IDC’s Kaplan, is: When will it be completed?”

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