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The Wi-Fi Alliance stuck a stick in the sand, noting 95 products have achieved certified Draft N compliance: The alliance wanted to make sure that, as with the security work in IEEE, long delays didn’t lead to problems in achieving interoperability in the marketplace. Draft N standards mean that devices are supposed to work well together; we’ll see when a big mass of testing happens among early certified devices.
Another firm joins the Wi-Fi Alliance certified Draft N parade: SMC has achieved certification for its gigabit router and its USB 2.0 adapter. You have to navigate quite a ways down in the SMC support system to find the firmware download. Here’s the link for the WGBR14-N router, and for the WUSB-N dongle.
The Wi-Fi Alliance lists a few dozen products from major manufacturers that have achieved Draft N certification: The certification program uses the Draft 2.0 that’s the current circulating set of understandings about what 802.11n will comprise. It’s unlikely to change much before completion next year. The Wi-Fi Alliance made some noise in late June when chipmakers had their reference designs certified, but as you can see by following the link, Apple, Belkin, Buffalo, D-Link, Intel (Centrino products), Lenovo, Linksys, NetGear, and SMC all have one or several products that have reached certification compliance, too.
Tim Higgins uncovers an ugly fact about Wi-Fi certification of Draft N devices: The Wi-Fi Alliance is only testing devices for compliance with Draft 2.0 of 802.11n in 20 MHz channel mode in the 2.4 GHz band. There are three mechanisms designed for 2.4 GHz to made Draft N devices play nice with neighbors when in that wider mode. The Alliance told Higgins that there’s still too much debate over how this will be handled, and thus they aren’t testing for it. Devices should come configured to use only a single 20 MHz channel in 2.4 GHz, as the D-Link device that Higgins tested does; Apple’s 802.11n base station is locked to 20 MHz only in 2.4 GHz.
They promised June—they delivered June—but I was expecting, well, certified devices, not certification testing: The Wi-Fi Alliance has been asserting since last year that they would have a certification program in place during second quarter 2007 to test Draft N (early 802.11n equipment) devices against Draft 2.0, an expected milestone in IEEE work on the standard. Today’s press release shows they met the mark, but I had naively assumed that there would certified devices on the market in June, too. Alas, not so. The certification program has begun, and new firmware and equipment will be out this summer. How soon, it’s unclear.
The Draft 2.0 compliant firmware that manufacturers have promised, and that chipmakers apparently completed months ago, will likely not be released for the majority of Wi-Fi devices with Draft N until certification is finished for that device in case things need to be fixed.
Draft 2.0 should improve interoperability among devices, and it adds three separate protection mechanism for the 2.4 GHz band to prevent N from using more spectrum than a comparable G device in the presence of other networks. In 5 GHz, where there’s much more “room,” only two of those mechanisms are needed, because interference is much less likely and easier to solve. (See “How Draft N Makes Nice with Neighbors,” an article I wrote after interviewing chipmakers that appeared 2007-02-16.)
Update: The Wi-Fi Alliance told me that certification could take as little as “hours,” and that 20 products were booked for testing on the first day of certification. That’s fine, but I’m interested in the cycle from certification to firmware release. I had really expected that certification results along with updated firmware would occur within the quarter, but I am just too darned optimistic.
Tim Higgins, meanwhile, is not very happy with his testing of pre-certification Draft 2.0 updates from D-Link. They don’t conform to his reasonable interpretation of the co-existence mechanisms for N and earlier B/G devices in the same frequency ranges.
The Wi-Fi Alliance still targets late June for completion of its certification of Draft N devices: Equipment that conforms to Draft 2.0 from the 802.11 Task Group N as tested through a suite developed by the alliance will be able to display a new logo that incorporates the Draft N motif. Atheros, Broadcom, Cisco, Intel, Marvell, and Ralink provided reference designs that were part of the certification process. These products are now Draft N certified, but they’re reference designs—they can’t be purchased. Rather, the changes to these designs to reach interoperability will now filter out from the chipmakers to their OEM partners, the companies that make end user gear, like Apple, Buffalo, Linksys, and others. These OEM devices will then, in turn, receive certification as they update the firmware necessary to achieve that state and submit their equipment for testing.
Revised timeline from the IEEE: The final, final, final version now expected to be approved April 2009. This doesn’t really affect anything, given that the drafts are moving along. But it’s a far cry from Sept. 2008, which was the previous target. It looks like Nov. 2007 is the target for the next major revision. Little significant is now expected to change. It’s just a long formal process ahead.
False alarm! It’s bad graphic design. It’s Sept. 2008 for final approval and Oct. 2008 for publication. You have to read along the bottom.
Airgo and Broadcom, rivals for Wi-Fi chip sales, said separately they support the new Wi-Fi Alliance plan for certifying Draft N gear: Airgo says they expect that putative Draft 2.0, which has a high probability of being finished for Jan. 2007 and approved for moving forward in Mar. 2007, will be such a thorough reworking that it will be an appropriate basis for products. The Wi-Fi Alliance formally announced today their timeline for certifying products based on 802.11n: for Draft 2.0 products, the first wave by June 2007; for final 802.11n ratified products, at least a year later based on a spring 2008 projection for ratification.
Airgo has consistently rejected the idea that Draft 1.0 was fully baked, and had held back while other chipmakers released early chips, none of which have seemingly been integrated in products the firmware and hardware of which can exceed 802.11g + MIMO designs from Airgo and others. (Press release not yet posted.)
Broadcom said, in a slightly parallel universe, that the Wi-Fi Alliance’s move validates the maturity of 802.11n-like products, and that while they fully support it, they’ll continue interoperability testing of current generation equipment with other chipmakers. This is only to the good, because the Wi-Fi Alliance’s managing director, Frank Hanzlik, told me yesterday that the alliance expects that manufacturers and their test labs will be conducting ongoing work that will lead to a fast path from Draft 2.0 to certified “phase one” products. (Press release not yet posted.)
The Wi-Fi Alliance said today it would offer a two-phase plan to keep 802.11n’s innovation moving along: With the next potential draft approval of the faster wireless data standard from engineering standards group IEEE’s Task Group N looking like it won’t appear until March 2007, the Wi-Fi Alliance has chosen to step in to stabilize the market. The first phase of certification will confirm compliance to what they expect will be Draft 2.0 in March, the next letter ballot in which Task Group N voters agree to an extensive set of changes to Draft 1.0. The compliance will be coupled with interoperability testing, so that devices labeled with their phase 1 branding—yet to be determined—will work together at the right speeds.
The second phase will be tied to a ratified standard, which may come by spring 2008. Ratification usually takes up to six months after final technical details are decided on and approved within a task group, so the standard will likely be gelled by fall 2007. Wi-Fi Alliance managing director Frank Hanzlik said in an interview today that should the March 2007 meeting not produce another draft, the alliance would assemble the closest possible set of agreed-on ideas to produce their certification standard. (The news was scheduled to be released tomorrow morning; News.com broke the embargo this evening.)
Products that comply with phase 1 certification for draft 802.11n could be on the market—through firmware upgrades or new hardware releases—by June 2007, but it’s likely that devices that start to hit the market by early 2007 will more and more closely conform with what will be certified. “We actually are doing a lot of formal interoperability testing within the alliance with pre-standard products,” said Hanzlik, and this ongoing work should reduce the time between the draft’s approval and certification approval. (The alliance has opened more worldwide testing labs in recent months, too, which should distribute its certification work for faster completion.)
Phase 1 products aren’t guaranteed to be forward-compatible with phase 2 products. “The forward-compatibility part is certainly too hard to call at this point; it’s not anything that the alliance is committing to,” Hanzlik said. However, they are stressing that compatibility among the phase 1 and 2 products would be highly stressed.
Phase 1 products will almost certainly have none of the optional elements for 802.11n, such as larger antenna arrays that produce higher throughputs. Some of these optional elements remain points of discussion, and will be less settled until further drafts are developed. Another major issue outstanding is the manner by which 802.11n devices will interact with legacy adapters and legacy networks, whether on the same Wi-Fi network, same Wi-Fi channel, or on adjacent Wi-Fi channels. That is expected to be resolved for the next letter-ballotted draft, which should be Draft 2.0.
This intermediate approach to 802.11n certification echoes the earlier interim security measure, Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), that the alliance put into place when the work on 802.11i lingered far longer than the market and manufacturers would tolerate, with the failure of Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) as a reliable link encryption method. WPA was available a year before 802.11i’s final ratification, and stabilized the security concerns of the market. The later WPA2, which included the strong AES encryption method, entered the industry with relative seamlessness.
Of course, WPA had more to do with retrofitting a security model to work on older devices without leaving newer devices with less protection, and was a good-enough security system; WPA2 almost serves a different market, in which government-grade encryption algorithms are required and fast handoff for authentication, mobile devices—like VoWLAN handsets—is critical.
With 802.11n, the standard has to work on the lowliest to most sophisticated device, and there’s a lot of hardwiring in silicon that can’t be fixed later, so the standard has to be right when devices are released. That’s been one of my primary objections to Draft N gear.
I have consistently said that you should not buy Draft N gear because there are significant advantages for most users. Buying MIMO gateways makes a lot of sense if you want better 802.11g speeds over greater areas. That technology is now relatively mature, relatively compatible, and relatively cheap. Draft N devices are quite expensive (Atheros aims to fix that by year’s end), don’t seem to deliver range and speed in testing (see this latest PC World showdown), and have no guarantee of full upgradability when the final 802.11n standard is delivered. (Intel said today they’d include Draft N support in their Santa Rosa platform in the first half of 2007, but Intel is on the board of the Wi-Fi Alliance, and thus knew this certification was coming when they made this statement.)
This process set up by the Wi-Fi Alliance answers my concerns.
First, with 802.11n’s ratification pushed back nearly a year from the expectation just a few months ago, there’s now a reason to bring today’s capabilities into today’s equipment. When ratification was just a few months away, having an entire generation of equipment that would be potentially incapable of forward compatibility or upgrade seemed ridiculous. Now, it’s a reasonable market choice given a 12-to-18-month lifespan for the right kind of user. (The equipment will obviously continue to work after the ratification, too, and have its own value as it will retain interoperability and other benefits that current Draft N devices can’t guarantee.)
Second, the Wi-Fi Alliance is waiting for Draft 2.0 or its equivalent. This allows a host of compromises to be made in the year between Draft 1.0 and 2.0, and technical problems to be solved. There should be an ocean of difference from Draft 1.0 to 2.0 in terms of basic problems being solved. Today’s Draft N devices promise compliance to a draft that will be superceded, and offer no hardware upgrade promise when and if that happens if firmware upgrades fail to suffice.
Third, the alliance will offer a brand that I confirmed with Hanzlik will be clearly differentiated in phase 1 and 2. This won’t offer consumers or businesses any implicit promise about forward compatibility. This reduces confusion in the marketplace and provides a clear message to equipment buyers that they are buying gear that may be superceded later, but has value now.
Fourth, the interoperability and conformance testing by the Wi-Fi Alliance will smooth out the rough spots in using devices from different manufacturers together. Some early equipment plays very poorly with its friends (similar devices from other makers) and neighbors (nearby networks). The alliance’s process has worked in the past.
So, I can’t say right now, go out and buy Phase One gear, because it has no name and doesn’t exist. But I will predict with some degree of certainty that devices that start shipping in late winter 2007 will likely offer enough carrots for those who need higher performance or greater area networks to start thinking about purchase, and what’s for sale by June 2007 (and certified) will be good investments in the next generation of Wi-Fi.
Draft 2.0 will likely not be voted on until January: This puts a crimp in the earlier predictions that Draft 1.0 might be adopted (it wasn’t), and that Draft 2.0 of the next-generation wireless data spec could be ready to go by, say, September. Nope. There were 12,000 comments presented, and even after removing duplicates and what sounds like irritating editorial comments, they’re still slogging through the issues. (Atheros’s CTO says that three people submitted comments on the draft ballot for every blank line in the document; there must be an explanation for that, because those sorts of changes are easy to de-duplicate and cope with.)
There’s still no resolution on how to bind two 20 MHz channels into one 40 MHz channel, something that the chipmakers have been pretending is non-issue from a silicon perspective for some time. That is, that whatever approach is taken, they’ll be able to push out firmware updates that will make their Draft N chips still work.
Meanwhile, we will have another six months, at least, of Draft N gear—and even a second generation of Draft N gear based on the same non-existent standard—before there’s a chance for a real stab at what the final standard will be.
Don’t buy Draft N gear, folks. Buy MIMO.
On the main Wi-Fi Networking News site today, I explain why you shouldn’t buy Draft N gear: The Draft N devices lack a promise of forward compatibility (they’re likely to be upgradable, but there’s no guarantee from manufacturers), cost too much, and will require frequent firmware upgrades. Why buy now? See my editorial for more on the issue.
A game is being played with announcements from Task Group N: Yes, there is unity. Of a sort. In an interview last week, Atheros’s chief technology officer said the Draft 1.0 accepted by Task Group (which will eventually produce the 802.11n next-generation standard to move Wi-Fi forward) was essentially complete with small details to work out. He said there was a very small risk that major changes would be required. Bill Bunch, director of product marketing at Broadcom, confirmed that view in an interview Wednesday morning.
Read the rest of this article at Wi-Fi Neworking News; it’s important enough that I’ve posted it on the general site.