Comms chips

802.11n Back on Track

The two main groups battling over what should become the technology behind the next high-speed wireless LAN standard from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) have reached a compromise and could present a unified proposal for the 802.11n specification to the trade body in November, Unstrung has learned.

The 802.11n standard could prove to be the most important upgrade to the wireless LAN standard since 802.11b. It is expected to offer double the data transfer rates of the current 802.11g standard, delivering 108 Mbit/s at a range of 300 feet.

But the new technology doesn't just address the need for speed. One of the hard and fast rules about the specification is that it will use several antennas to send and receive wireless data -- a technique known as multiple input, multiple output (MIMO) -- which should help increase throughput by taking multiple "snapshots" of the same signal and combining them to make a more accurate overall picture than the single data stream. MIMO's enthusiasts argue that this will make the technology more suitable for multimedia applications like video-over-WLAN.

The TGn Sync group, backed by Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) among others, and the wWise group, supported by Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN) and friends, have been stuck in an impasse over the high-speed technology for months now (see 802.11n Slapfest Ahead). In February, the TGn Sync group won an initial confirmation vote (see IEEE Picks High-Speed Survivor). But the group could never get the 75 percent approval needed in a second confirmation vote that would push the proposal forward as the 802.11n draft.

Now -- as the IEEE gears up for its July meeting -- the two groups have decided to bury the, er, chipset, and work on a compromise proposal instead of undergoing another round of fruitless voting. The proposal is expected to be ready in November of this year, according to a source Unstrung spoke to who asked to remain anonymous.

"It's always hard to predict a timetable with the IEEE," notes Bill McFarland, CTO of Atheros Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: ATHR). "November is as good a target as any."

Of course, it's not yet a done deal. The proposal then has to be put before the task group for comment before an eventual ratification vote, which could take many months.

After a draft proposal for the 802.11g specification was approved and submitted, it took 14 months before it became a stable standard. The hope is that a unified 802.11n proposal will help speed up the ratification process, because interested parties will have already had an opportunity to get down and dirty with the technical issues. But 802.11n is more complicated than some of the previous 802.11 upgrades, so this could slow things down. Whether your glass is half full or half empty, it seems likely that no offical 802.11n product will be on the market before 2007.

Not that the lack of a MIMO WiFi standard is holding firms from marketing faster wireless LAN products. Startup Airgo Networks is leading the charge, claiming to have sold more than 4 million of its "True MIMO" chipsets since the silicon launched in late 2004 (see Airgo's Laptop Ambitions).

Startup Video54 Technologies Inc. claims on its Website, which has been adopted by Netgear Inc. (Nasdaq: NTGR), that its technology is "compatible with... future 802.11n."

Even more established firms like Intel are putting their stakes in the ground to mark their interest in 802.11n. Recently, the silicon giant showed off a prototype in Japan that should be able to handle the speeds required by the new standard, although industry analysts say that a component based on that prototype could be years in the making (see Intel's Radio Ambitions).

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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