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August 28, 2006

Wi-Fi Certification for Draft N by June 2007

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; 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.