The Present Shapes the Future of 802.11n

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Kids like booster basketball and little league. A trip to a gym in the winter or a baseball field in the spring proves that. Sometimes, however, an observer thinks that the kids would have a lot more fun if the grownups would just go home and let them choose up sides and play themselves.


It's not a perfect analogy, but the thought came to mind as we read this story in EDN. The piece says the 802.11n spec that eventually will be approved by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) will be good, but if the vendors -- i.e., the grownups -- get out of the way, the final product probably will be better.


802.11n has had an unfortunate childhood. The platform, which will challenge and eventually supersede 802.11g in the marketplace, has been painfully slow to emerge. One powerful consortium (featuring the likes of Texas Instruments, Broadcom and Motorola) opposed another (with heavy hitters such as Intel, Cisco, Qualcomm and Nortel). The two groups merged proposals about a year and a half ago, but no standard has yet been approved. In the interim, tons of "draft N" products offering greater range and throughput than existing 802.11g gear have emerged.


The problem, according to the EDN story, is that there is so much draft N product in the field that vendors will not let the final standard be too different, since those changes could strand the earlier investment. This would hold true even if the changes would make the standard stronger.


This situation is more dire than previous technology introductions because of the long lag time between the introduction of the draft and the final standard. The decision by the Wi-Fi Alliance to certify products based on draft N didn't help, either, says Brian Dipert, who wrote the EDN piece.


Dipert makes a good case. The bottom line is that 802.11n, which is based on multiple in multiple out (MIMO) antennas, is a compelling technology that could increase data rates by a factor of 10 over 802.11g and reach speeds of 600 Mbps. The draft products will be fine for many users, such as one-access-point small or home offices. For companies that must deploy in areas too large for AP or need to standardize on one vendor across many locales, the long road to a standard is not good news.


This clearly is a case in which the glass is half full. An imperfect standard that somewhat limits a superior technology is better than a world in which the platform doesn't exist at all. Just ask those kids: In a perfect world, they would be playing by themselves. But playing in front of the grownups sure beats sitting in math class.