The Difficult Birth of 802.11n

Carl Weinschenk

Carl Weinschenk spoke with Craig Mathias, principal, The Farpoint Group. Mathias is running tests of 802.11n gear for Network World.


Weinschenk: The current situation with 802.11n is a bit confusing. Can you spell out what is happening?
Mathias: [T]here are two kinds of "pre-N" products. One is Draft N-compliant, the other uses MIMO [multiple in multiple out antenna] technology but doesn't claim compliance. Generally the ones that don't claim compliance have been out for a while. They are from the same vendors as those that offer draft N products [but] they are different implementations entirely: different chips, different everything. In terms of interoperability in MIMO-only mode, they can't do that. Many [vendors] thought at first glance [at the draft] that that was what the standard would be. That's not going to be the case.

There were 12,000 comments. There are 3,000 comments that really matter, probably. Believe it or not, 6,000 were from AT&T. They are going to be Cingular wireless [and offer] WLAN and cellular. It's very natural to make sure the next version of the standard meets their needs. That's my guess. The current draft is not going to be the standard. The comments are all over the place. We are not looking at a wholesale throwing out of the draft and starting over. That is not going to happen. They do have to reconcile all the comments and come up with another draft. We're still hopeful of getting a standard in the second quarter of next year.


Weinschenk: So should companies use Draft N, MIMO-based non Draft N - or just wait?
Mathias: For SMBs, it certainly makes sense to use MIMO products today. They are not concerned about [802.11n] standards compliance. All products are 802.11g-compliant. MIMO gives you, even at "G," improved throughput and range. It's a benefit of MIMO. [An SMB should go ahead with non draft-compliant if they are deploying] one to three access points, something like that.

Larger enterprises should wait for a standard. Products are not performing as well as previous ones that are MIMO-based. Previous generations of MIMO gear performed better than the draft N stuff. That was true two months ago. We'll find out if that's still true. As long as you are buying something not compliant with the standard, you might as well get the best performance.


Weinschenk: Will products on the market today comply with the eventual standard?
Mathias: Many of the vendors informally say that their current draft N products are upgradeable to the standard. I think that's outrageous. These are claims I don't think are possible to fulfill in the long run. The likelihood of significant change is too great. I don't think claiming compliance with a draft instead of saying it has the highest throughput or is the most cost efficient works. I think that people want to buy gear with better range, better throughput. [Draft N isn't as good as MIMO-only gear because it hasn't] been in the market long enough. Vendors haven't had enough experience in building this stuff yet. MIMO is wickedly complex, one of the most difficult radio technologies ever developed. To put it on a low-cost chip set is amazing. Companies shouldn't be criticized for producing first release products not as good as they might be.

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