Editor's Corner

802.11n ETA

The first story in today's issue is about the forward move by 802.11n toward Draft 2.0. In last week's issue we wrote about the Draft (the issue came on the same day that the vote took place), saying, among other things, that it would take about 2-3 years for 802.11n products to hit the market.

Jim Poehlman, chief information technologist at Sunnyvale, CA-based Ubicom, writes to say that I was off--quite a way off--and that in his considered opinion it would take more like 12-18 months. He suggests that we divide the market into two camps--Enterprise and SMB/Home Networks--and assess the dynamics of adoption within each differently.

Enterprise markets will definitely be the later adopter, he writes, mostly owing to already-deployed solutions. These solutions are expensive to replace and the adoption of new solutions typically requires corporate standards to be rewritten and justified. "Most large companies don't adopt new replacement technology for 3-5 years unless there is a real compelling reason to do so," Jim writes, which makes the case for rushing to replace 802.11g with 802.11n less compelling: The benefits of the newer technology are strictly throughput, and that can be addressed by adding more AP's in an environment to offload. Moreover, the added burden of security mechanisms for the enterprise tends to reduce the frequency for changing out for newer technology.

Unlike enterprise networks, SMB networks are typically driven by cost and availability first, and security second. While 802.11g will continue to be driven down in price, most SoHo vendors such as D-Link, Linksys, and others, will continue to drive down their top-end 802.11n products in order to saturate the market for further acceptance and adoption. "Anyone comparing an 802.11n product that costs $20-$50 more than an 802.11g product will most likely pick the newer technology, with the justification being the added cost per MByte being the deciding factor and compatibility with newer equipment (as in laptops)," Jim writes. It is very likely that 2007 will also see low-cost 802.11n gear hitting the market to rival 802.11g inventory and compete with it for the attention of customers moved mostly by price.

In sum, Jim says that home networks will benefit from 802.11n. "I don't agree that this will be stifled due to backhaul issues, I think that the majority of adopters will want the bandwidth for their internal media uses, not due to inbound streams." It is the ability to stream movies, music, and other media already located within the home network that will be the major use of 802.11n now and in the near future. Indeed, the media-centric home is already a reality, and not a very expensive reality at that, but the quality is lacking on current 802.11g solutions. 802.11n will address this, Jim concludes, and with newer QoS technologies (like those found in the D-Link products), the quality of streaming media will be dramatically improved.

Jim's argument is lucid and persuasive, and I find myself in agreement with him. I used the 2-3 years time frame for the following reason: The IEEE has set October 2008 as the target date for final publication of the 802.11n standard. As this is 20 months away, I thought that a 2-3 year time frame was not unreasonable. Yes, many draft-802.11n are already on the market (with vendors promising software upgrades to the final version of the standard), and the Wi-Fi Alliance has organized several plugfests to test compatibility of products from different vendors. The organization is offering limited interoperability certification for draft-n gear. All these will help hasten the pace of 802.11n proliferation, but the major push into the market may well have to await the ratification of the standard and the interoperability certification of the gear that will be based on it. Certainly, enterprise users will wait for the ratification and certification. That having been said, Jim's well-argued elucidation is well-taken. - Ben