FEATURE: Unlocking the true potential of the digital home--IEEE 802.11n

Unlocking the True Potential of the Digital Home--IEEE 802.11n
Airgo's David Borison talks about the dangers of developing 802.11n chipsets before the standard is completed

Just a few weeks ago, a key milestone was reached in a process that has captured the attention of the entire wireless industry: the 802.11n task group voted to accept the joint proposal as the basis for draft one of the new IEEE next generation WiFi standard. This joint proposal includes features and performance benefits that will enable the industry to realize a host of emerging applications such as streaming video, audio and VIP. 

The 802.11n standard has been the focus of intense scrutiny during the past several months due to the incredible benefits of the Airgo-based MIMI technology on which it is based. Acceptance of the joint proposal serves the best interests of both consumers and the industry because this proposal can now be evaluated and improved by all parties in the open IEEE forum. The vote was decided by a 184 to 0 margin and signals an end to the special interest group politics that disrupted the standards progress last fall. 

The Road Ahead
Initially, many within the 802.11n task group estimated that it would take just over a year to move from Draft 1.0 to ratification. The IEEE, however, has since agreed that a more reasonable timeline is 18 months and now estimates ratification of the standard to be in September 2007. This builds in time for the 500-member IEEE 802.11n task group to review the draft for errors and omissions, inconsistencies with other 802.11 standards, possible improvements in performance and interoperability and better voice and multimedia application support. The first round of IEEE group corrections and improvements will be incorporated into a Draft 2.0 in May or July 2006, and the IEEE anticipates that a final draft will be ratified approximately one year later.

This schedule update by the IEEE indicates that much work still needs to be done, and that the first draft will undergo several rounds of review and revisions before it is stable enough to guarantee firmware upgradeability or interoperability to the final ratified standard. More importantly, until there is a stable and mature draft of the IEEE 802.11n standard, the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA) cannot begin the testing and certification program, which it expects to begin in March 2007. Until this certification testing is in place, device manufacturers-and consumers-cannot be assured of interoperability between different vendors' 802.11n products.

Walking the Line
So the question remains, when will the draft be stable enough to begin designing firmware upgradeable chipsets? The industry eagerly awaits an answer. Claims that chip sets based on any early draft will be firmware upgradeable or interoperable with the final 802.11n specification are irresponsible and may mislead consumers who do not fully understand the IEEE process.

Gartner, Farpoint Group and other industry experts further highlight that claims of upgradeability at this juncture are at best unfounded and at worst misleading. They also point out that these claims have the potential to put chip vendors and the OEMs who work with them in an extremely difficult position when upgradeability and interoperability is not achieved.

In a recent statement about claims of upgradeability and interoperability Gartner warned, "Gartner believes that such claims may be misleading to customers, in part because they are premature, since the specification is likely to undergo changes over the next year. Also, customers may mistakenly infer that these chips can be made compliant through upgrades. In the past, with 802.11g, a similar rush to marketing occurred and included promises regarding the ability to upgrade that were not met."

The MIMO Opportunity
The MIMO technology at the heart of 802.11n is more complex than any technology ever attempted in wireless, and there is much work to be done to create a stable and final draft of the IEEE standard. Analysts forecast the market for MIMO to reach $1 billion in 2007, in large part due to the industry push to standardize MIMO Wi-Fi technology through the 802.11n standard. The consumer market today can experience the benefits of MIMO-powered wireless networks through Wi-Fi certified 802.11b/g and 802.11a/g compliant products from leading vendors such as Linksys, Netgear, Buffalo, Belkin, Corega, and others. Because these products are Wi-Fi Alliance certified for interoperability, they are guaranteed to work with 802.11n products shipped in the future.

Years have been invested in demonstrating and evangelizing MIMO technology to gain its acceptance by the industry. However, those closely involved will agree that the surface has just been scratched in terms of the opportunity presented by MIMO. MIMO-based products are bringing a new level of connectivity to millions of consumers, and the technology--with the ratification of a final draft of the 802.11n standard--will form an essential building block of the wireless future. This market is truly poised to explode once the IEEE and Wi-Fi Alliance complete the standardization and certification process.

David E. Borland is director of product management with Airgo Networks, an 802.11a/b/g chipset provider and pioneer of MIMO technology.