Slow progress for 802.11n

The IEEE 802.11n standard has been three years in the making, and from the looks of it, it has at least another year to go. That's a shame because it offers a lot of benefits, including higher throughput than the current Wi-Fi standard -- about 120Mbps in the real world -- and 50 percent longer range. Plus, because it uses multiple antennas that can stitch together a fractured signal, it eliminates a lot of spots where there might be drop-offs indoors.

Before the first-draft balloting there were lengthy negotiations between three disagreeing factions. These were the hardware WLAN network manufacturers, who wanted a quick turnaround so they could get product out the door; handset players, who were concerned about the lack of specs for power-saving and VoIP; and the consumer-electronics industry, which wanted to accommodate far more devices than just access points.

When a compromise was reached, the so-called Letter Balloting began, going out to the 400 or so members of the working group. The ballot asked for a vote on the spec, up or down, plus comments. Victory was expected, but it was not to be. The vote was only 47 percent in favour, with 53 percent disapproving.

In total there were 12,000 comments. Three people at AT&T Labs had 6000 comments between them.

Fed up with the excruciatingly slow standardization process, Atheros announced last week that it had come to an agreement with competitor Broadcom to build interoperable chip sets for 802.11n -- or what they are certain will become 802.11n.

Sounds good, right? Wrong, says Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance. "Two companies agreeing to do something is fine, but it is not a substitute for an industry-wide certification program," Hanzlik says. September 2007 is IEEE's best promise.

But Hanzlik says you just don't know at this point what changes might be made, adding, "Customers might be stranded." Yeah, especially if those three guys at AT&T Labs get another shot at it. But there is one thing everyone can agree on: The current standardization process needs to change. Amen.

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