The Future of 802.11n Has Arrived

Carl Weinschenk

The telecommunications and IT industries have gotten a lot better at melding emerging standards with older gear already earning its living in the field. That's an important skill. If the introduction of new technologies -- which are emerging at a blistering pace -- isn't handled with finesse, the result will be a chaotic landscape littered with incompatible systems. Performance will be inconsistent and prices higher.

This week, The Wi-Fi Alliance began testing pre-standard 802.11n products already out in the field against Draft 2.0, which is presumably close to the final standard that will be adopted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. This is a step forward, despite this MIMO+N News writer's implications that the Wi-Fi Alliance should have been actually certifying products instead of simply saying that testing has begun. The consortium says certifications will be awarded this summer.

The importance of having the standards process run in parallel to actual deployments is suggested by this Network World story, which says Morrisville State College -- a small school in the town of the same name in upstate New York -- is beginning to deploy a campus-wide network that will include about 900 802.11n access points from Meru Networks.

The benefits are striking: The story says that using 802.11n will enable each access point to provide 130 megabits per second of throughput, compared with 20 to 25 Mbps for 802.11 g and 802.11a APs. The costs are significant, but they will shrink as chipset integration takes hold. However, the costs will sink even lower if true standardization emerges, since vendors will have to compete to sell APs even in systems in which they provide the infrastructure gear.

The question is when users should jump into 802.11n. This commentary at Network Computing counsels enterprises to put off 802.11n deployments as long as possible. Before the writer addressed 802.11n specifically, he said that wireless still faces significant security, scalability, financial and availability issues. While he lauds 802.11n as a "a breakthrough technology if there ever was one," he doesn't take those issues off the table. Standards still are up in the air and, even though the technology seems solid and promising, his opinion is that there is no compelling reason to make a precipitous move. Gartner, too, has come out in favor of waiting until the dust settles and a full standard is set.

This posting, from the CTO of WildPackets, takes a realistic look at the prospects of 802.11n in the enterprise. The first part of the posting is optimistic, with a look at some company lab tests involving Linksys, D-Link and Netgear that "were encouraging as far as interoperability." The second half of the post, however, outlines the challenges of real-world deployments. 802.11n features multiple in-multiple out antennas that need two 20 MHz channels for maximum throughput. This raises significant questions about existing wireless channel mapping.

There are a lot of moving parts in the 802.11n game. That's to be expected as three related but distinct sets of questions must be answered:

  • What will the final standard look like?
  • How will vendor and end-user investment in current gear be protected?
  • How will roll-outs of the spectrum-intensive technology be reconciled with technologies already in the field?

Planners at companies considering 802.11n should think carefully about these issues.

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