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At first, I thought this was link bait, but it’s thoughtful commentary: The Burton Group’s report on the “end of Ethernet” as reported here by NetworkWorld’s John Cox, argues that expectations of Wi-Fi are set appropriately when 802.11n is involved. Most people don’t see the kind of throughput at home over the Internet that even a busy 802.11n access point would get through a robust office network. Further, young people expect ubiquitous wireless access, and will have even lower expectations for routine computing tasks at network speed. Specialized markets still need fast networks, as do some segments of the enterprise.
Craig Mathias of Farpoint has been one of the most sensible analysts on the subject of 802.11n and Wi-Fi: He’s now happy with the direction of the market, and things that 802.11n has become mature in a non-traditional sense. Most of the elements have been in products for almost four years, he writes, and the Wi-Fi Alliance’s certification process will put the icing on the cake for compatibility. With corporate products already announced, that puts a faster track on enterprise adoption, too. He thinks adoption in the consumer and corporate space will happen sooner than later.
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.
Some months ago, I wrote a provocative essay entitled Don’t Buy Draft N: I’m ready to provide two updates. First, it’s almost time to buy. Second, if you bought Draft N devices, you’re probably not up a creek.
On the first score, the adoption of a draft by the IEEE 802.11 Task Group N that will almost certainly move with relatively minor changes to ratification means that we will shortly hit a point of real interoperability, consistent performance, and stable firmware. The Wi-Fi Alliance has committed to certifying devices by second quarter as Draft N compliant, and I would argue it’s worth waiting until March to see what new magazine lab reviews bring, how costs drop in that period, and what the timeframe for interoperability testing works out to be.
I would certainly wait until the next generation of products hits the market, which will happen probably next month. In some cases, these won’t be substantially different. In others, they could be entirely new. Airgo, now part of Qualcomm, will offer its first Draft N chips in February, based on statements made last month. That competition will certainly produce price pressure.
I also think that gigabit Ethernet is worth waiting for if you believe you’ll need it. Only a few early devices include GigE and they have a price premium. It should be a basic part of Draft N gateways, and I expect that will slowly become de rigeur. For home networks, this is absolutely less critical unless you routinely perform network backups or move large files around. Even then, you could couple a cheap ($50) GigE switch with a Draft N router if the price premium remains above $50.
On the second point, because Task Group N adopted a draft that reportedly doesn’t break the silicon that’s already out there—the big reported change in drafts is better behavior around legacy networks—I would expect the vast majority of Draft N devices sold to date will be upgradable via driver and firmware improvements.
I told the many companies and chipmakers over the last several months who complained about my Don’t Buy Draft N stance that, given sufficient evidence, I would drop my objections when it was clear that the time had come. It seems that time has come, although I’d like to see firmware releases for old devices and new hardware based on the new draft to have the best compatibility when someone purchases a device.
But the worst-case scenario appears to have been averted.
Airgo’s acquisition by Qualcomm was coupled with news they had Draft 2.0 compliance: As I wrote over on the main Wi-Fi Networking News site, this is enormous marketing department spin because there’s no such thing as Draft 2.0 from the Task Group N that’s working on 802.11n. What Airgo has told me via email and has told a variety of trade reporters since then is that—as Tim Higgins puts it after talking to Airgo’s founder—they “put everything that could possibly be in Draft 2.0 into the AGN400 chipset.”
I still find that a far cry from saying “full support for Draft 2.0,” when that draft doesn’t exist. The could have said, “We believe we have flexible silicon that can support everything that will be in Draft 2.0, given that the process underway doesn’t allow for any substantive changes beyond what’s known now; and, we built a backwards compatible mode that will support everything that other manufacturers put into their chips for Draft 1.0 compatibility.”
Now that’s a cool statement. It’s verifiable. It’s true. I could stand behind that. But not “full support for Draft 2.0.” Those are empty marketing words that have raised the ire of the entire trade press. Mainstream media hasn’t even mentioned the claim.
The InfoWorld story is a bit obscure because pre-standard 802.11n is in a confusing state: Veteran wireless reporter Ephraim Schwartz says that Intel director Alan Crouch told an audience at IEEE Globecom 2006 Expo today that Intel would put 802.11n into Centrino reference designs by next year. But at which point next year will be the critical question. Draft 2.0 of the 802.11n spec is expected in March, and that draft or something like it will be the basis for a Wi-Fi Alliance certification testing program for interim 802.11n devices. If Intel waits til April or May to add N, it’s much more likely they’ll be on the right page than in January or February.
(Apple is apparently putting Draft N chips in some of its laptops now, with the N features turned off, apparently hedging bets that if the chips turn out to be firmware upgradable, they need only turn on the N features.)
One computer maker steps over the line dividing hype from commitment with Draft N products: ASUS said in a press release this morning that purchasers of their Broadcon Intensi-Fi Draft N-based WL-500W gateway and WL-100W adapter are guaranteed firmware or hardware upgrades to the ratified version of 802.11n. The units must be purchased before Dec. 31, 2006, to qualify. ASUS is guaranteeing that for three months following the ratification, they will provide whatever is necessary to assure full N compatibility. If hardware is required, purchasers will have that period of time to return their equipment at their expense; ASUS will pay shipping back to the consumer.
This is so not a sucker bet, but a great move on ASUS’s part. As I’ve written many times in the past, there is no guarantee that current generations of Draft N chips will be firmware upgradable, but there’s also no assumption that they will not be upgradable. Because ASUS is offering this guarantee only for this calendar year, and putting the upgrade period at probably March 2008, the expected ratification, its likely that very few purchasers will, in fact, request hardware upgrades even if hardware upgrades are required. In the meantime, Broadcom and ASUS will certainly be posting a stream of firmware upgrades as those are needed.
The next logical step, of course, is that other computer makers and equipment makers offer the same deal, like Dell and Linksys. There’s a multi-million-dollar risk behind this, of course, but a guarantee would almost certainly accelerate current purchases of equipment. The marketing and sales folks at many firms should be huddled over spreadsheets today, wondering how to launch a “Draft N—Guaranteed!” campaign that will push more current revenue without booking huge liabilities.
Dell may put Draft N adapters into new laptops: DigiTimes cites unnamed private sources at chipmakers stating Dell is planning a third-quarter launch of notebooks using Draft N.
At first glance, this seems like the world’s worst idea. Take an underbaked draft of a standard that no chipmaker will guarantee hardware upgrades on if needed for final ratified compliance and stick it into an internal module that can’t be easily swapped out. Great.
On second glance, the “third quarter” date is probably malleable. Dell may be committing to a future draft that’s much further along. By fall, there could be a mostly baked standard that is guaranteed by chipmakers to be firmware upgradable.
Large-scale Wi-Fi network operators in corporate and academic worlds bearish on N in short-term: These kinds of users need to see real improvements and good-neighbor operations before adopting 802.11n, as it doesn’t offer any real advantages in the short-term over their current networks.
The IT director at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York, is quoted as wanting to see test results. They’re an interesting case. I spoke to them three years ago because they were a very early WLAN deployer using RangeLAN (2 Mbps) equipment in the late 1990s. They moved from RangeLAN to 802.11a because it offered much higher speeds and less interference even though it seemed a strange move at the time and requiring users to purchase 802.11a or a/g cards for use on the campus network.
The IEEE approved draft 1.0 of 802.11n yesterday: The IEEE voted in January to accept a proposal—largely that of the Enhanced Wireless Consortium with some changes—as a pre-1.0 draft. That near-unanimous vote was the first step in finalizing 802.11n, which has been under discussion for years and which appeared to be heading to a deadlock. The EWC proposal was quietly built by four chipmakers—Atheros, Broadcom, Intel, and Marvell—and then sold back into a joint proposal group that was trying to harmonize competing efforts.
That work paid off given the quick approval of Draft 1.0. This first fully numbered draft had only very minor technical changes from the proposal that was accepted as the 0.1 draft in January, according to Atheros’s chief technology officer Bill McFarland. In an interview this morning, McFarland said that changes were primarily to conform to IEEE editorial style, including adding detailed appendixes and some clarifying text. “The draft was evaluated by the group as being complete, technically very sound, and in shape where it could potentially be the exact final standard,” McFarland said. That doesn’t mean it will be adopted as is—that’s very unlikely—but it has the form and detail of a final draft.
McFarland said that the proposal will now be sent out for balloting among 802.11 Working Group members for a 40-day period. Ballots will vote up or down on accepting this draft, and will bring back comments and requests for changes. In the May meeting, those changes will be discussed, and some will be adopted and others not. If all goes well, a re-ballot will happen following a similar course. In July, a final draft could win the day, which would then go on to a group of experts at a higher IEEE level who typically approve drafts—by the time they’ve reached this point, most technical and harmonization issues across 802 (networks) and 802.11 (wireless networks) have been settled.
Meanwhile, manufacturers will probably start firing up the silicon ovens. McFarland said that Atheros was already in sampling, and it was very encouraging that “In getting to this 1.0 draft very few technical changes needed to be made.” There is a very low risk, he said, of significant changes being made before a final draft is accepted that would require changes in silicon.
Inertia will set in, too, because so many chipmakers already are sampling or showing 802.11n designs to their customers. “As time goes on, all the major silicon providers have begun work on it so they prefer more and more there not be changes,” McFarland said.
Atheros is sampling draft 802.11n chips now. “We expect that you’ll be able to see products on the store shelves certainly by the middle of this year implementing this 1.0 draft,” McFarland said. Changes to the spec would be handled through firmware upgrades.
For some reason, NetGear decided to issue a press release about its upcoming 802.11n products: They claim they will have a 600 Mbps (raw) 802.11n device out in the first half of 2006 that will meet the in-progress spec, TechWorld reports. The 600 Mbps rate is raw speed using the maximum number of spatial streams, a 40 MHz-wide channel, and the largest antenna matrix. This should top 300 Mbps of real throughput.
The press release doesn’t say NetGear guarantees that their draft 802.11n devices will be upgradable to the full version. Understatement by me follows: One would expect forward compatibility assurances. However, companies are reluctant to state such.
Can we have firms raise their hands: Who among you is willing to say that any draft 802.11n equipment shipped will be replaced if necessary to provide full, certifiable 802.11n compliance?
After last week’s CES, I predicted that the Enhanced Wireless Consortium had the votes to win: The EWC, founded by four major chipmakers, has swept most of the industry and most IEEE 802.11n voting members into its camp. The EWC draft will be introduced (I believe by way of a joint proposal group that was already in progress) next week in Hawaii, this article reports. With several chipmakers already having EWC-based prototypes for testing or in sampling, EWC seems a fait accompli.
This article is the first I’ve seen that makes the Airgo side of the equation seem less unbalanced. The company obviously fought hard for some of its most critical ideas to be included, and I see less unhappiness about the result in statements by their CEO. I had no doubt that Airgo can adapt and produce chips that conform to whatever proposal is adopted, but these statements lead me to think we will see no schism and little delay in moving toward industry-standard high-throughput devices.
Battlin’ Task Group N reports! Unstrung reports that the Enhanced Wireless Consortium proposal will get a vote in January but TechNewsWorld writes that it’s a battle of the joint proposal and the EWC proposal: It’s a little confusing, but clarity is coming. Task Group N was mired down in a stalemate between the WWiSE and TGn Sync proposals. A compromise was being attempted in a joint proposal group developed by the two groups. Meanwhile, Intel, Atheros, Broadcom, and Marvell—four leading Wi-Fi chipmakers—developed the EWC proposal outside of the joint group and then got 23 other companies to sign up for it. Airgo, the leading MIMO chipmaker, stayed out, as did Motorola and Nokia.
Here’s why we’re seeing confusion. Unstrung says that Airgo expects to get a passing vote on what must be the joint proposal in January with drafts starting in the March meeting. (This would mean 50 percent of voters agree in January, but 75 percent must accept a draft as a starting point. That’s where things can easily get hung up.)
TechNewsWorld, on the other hand, cites other sources that cast the issue into a fight between the EWC and joint proposals.
Who wins? Probably Airgo, in that they maintain their lead in producing products that are garnering the best reviews for range and speed. Who loses? Consumers by not seeing costs come down and a delay in interoperability, and smaller firms that are losing out on business before there’s interoperability that allows them to become niche players and build a market on top of commodity products.
Airgo announced its next-generation MIMO chips today: Airgo’s newest entry in the MIMO field will hit 240 Mbps of raw throughput when communicating among identical devices. The new chips are backwards compatible with 802.11a, b, and g, and previous Airgo-based devices. Actual throughput should be about 100 Mbps versus about 20 Mbps for plain 802.11g and 30 to 40 Mbps with various extensions and antenna technologies.
Airgo’s director of product marketing Dave Borison said in an interview that the third-generation chips will help wireless enter the consumer-electronics market for streaming video around the house. “These products will literally support multiple streams of HD [high-definition television] over an entire home,” Borison said. The higher speed also comes with a maintenance of higher speeds at greater distances than existing gear of any kind.
The new chips employ 40 megahertz (MHz) wide channels rather than the 20 MHz used for 802.11 standards. Unlike Atheros Turbo mode in Super G, the Airgo chips expand spectrum to adjacent channels, and make that decision by monitoring spectrum on a frame-by-frame basis. Older devices receive 20 MHz single-channel transmissions; compatible newer adapters accept 40 MHz as available using what they call Adaptive Channel Expansion. “They don’t create negative effects on” neighboring channels Borison said.
The 240 Mbps rate doesn’t include compression; it’s the raw symbol rate passed through the devices, Borison said. As with earlier Airgo gear, both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz are supported with 802.11a, b, and g compatibility.
While Airgo isn’t producing equipment that matches point for point either of the competing proposals in Task Group N (802.11n), some aspects of these new chips parallel general trends in the group.
Borison said Airgo is confident that their technical lead will continue for some time. “We’ve now got four or five years plus, three generations of commercially available silicon, ahead of any of our competitors that haven’t even launched their first generation,” he said. The new chips are in sampling now with manufacturers.
Other coverage: Reuters notes that the new chips will cost less than the current generation.
Ah, comity for the future of Wi-Fi: The two leading contenders with no clear supermajority for the 802.11n specification have agreed to merge, Tony Smith of The Register writes. The two proposals will be merged, and then submitted at the September IEEE meeting, with a final version available in November at which time one would expect the 75-percent vote threshold to succeed.
From accepting a draft to ratification could take a year or longer, but we’re likely to see versions in silicon based on the September compromise to judge by previous wireless specification timetables.
The proposals had some minor but important technical differences, some of which relate to what will be mandatory and what optional in the final version. By allowing some mandatory elements in one proposal to be optional in the merged version, this should provide everyone the wiggle room they want. There are some deeper technical differences about signal performance that only engineers can work out the details of.
The two proposals for 802.11n promise speeds of at least 200 Mbps with a higher ration of throughput to symbol rate (not about 50 percent or less as with 802.11g, but more like 75 percent or higher)—and rates that could reach 600 Mbps with the most antennas and greatest potential bandwidth.
Internetnews.com says even faster wireless networking coming—by 2015: The news site reports on WIGWAM (Wireless Gigabit with Advanced Multimedia), a German academic and corporate consortium that’s working on 1 Gbps wireless data technology in the 60 GHz band. Interestingly, the numbers for 802.11n in this article are all talking about 100 Mbps, while members of the two leading proposals for 802.11n believe that with optional or mandatory extensions (one point of contention) speeds of as high as 600 Mbps are possible, but 200 to 400 Mbps are almost certain.