Gates says 802.11 everywhere: Gates predicts and ensures the future of wireless networking through WLANs.
Cell carriers are getting into Wi-Fi in a big way. The universal topic at the conference was discussion of how cell telephone carriers have realized that their hope for the future of data over wireless lies in hot spots coupled with ubiquitous lower-speed cellular service. Voicestream's intended purchase of MobileStar's assets in early 2002 is only one small example. In Asia and Europe, carriers are aggressively (and sometimes quietly) building out pilots of dozens of hot spots. Whispers at the conference made it clear that that is the tip of the iceberg, and we could see large-scale installations during 2002 that dwarf current deployment.
The 802.11g (Task Group g or TGg) compromise improves manufacturers' ability to make dual-band access points. The TGg compromise requires backwards 802.11b compatibility (essentially making 802.11g a superset replacement for 802.11b, not an adjunct) as well as a mandatory inclusion of the OFDM encoding method found in the 802.11a 5 GHz band spec as well. Many vendors and speakers at the conference said that because they have to build OFDM in the chipset, the MAC chip or chips can be identical with two radio chips handling the separate 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz transmission and reception. It means that 802.11a+802.11g dual-band radios will cost incrementally more than single-band radios. Expect these dual-band radios by early 2002, incorporating either 802.11a+b, or a+b+early versions of g.
802.11g isn't ratified and won't be until late 2002. Despite the hype, the TGg compromise only settled encoding. The rest of the issues are apparently minor in comparison, but full ratification of the specification won't be until as late as the end of 2002. However, chipmakers will be shipping g-compatible chipsets much earlier than that.
802.11a has limited but important appeal. Despite 802.11a devices already shipping (based on Atheros's chipset), the appeal of 802.11a may have eroded somewhat with the TGg compromise adding high-symbol rates to 2.4 GHz. Still, 802.11a has distinct advantages - uncrowded spectrum, 8 to 12 nonoverlapping channels, etc. - that make it ideal for enterprise applications and backbone signal carrying.
WECA and Certification
I had the opportunity this morning to speak with David Cohen, chairman of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, the industry's certification trade association that has emerged in the last year from a significant to entirely dominant position with the addition of Intel and Microsoft to their membership.
I asked Cohen about how the Wi-Fi certification mark would evolve over time with new standards and elements (such as security) being folded into the networking mix. "The requirements to earn that mark may change over time, just like the requirements for other marks change over time," he said.
The Wi-Fi symbol will remain unchanged, and the certification will assure a basic level of interoperability between all devices. Any currently certified Wi-Fi device will work with any future certified device, even if that newer device has more features.
Cohen said that WECA only makes changes to the certification standard once per year to avoid confusion and sudden change that might confuse consumers or injure the marketplace.
The latest specification, which goes into effect Dec. 1, 2001, adds ad hoc mode standardization, something that many in the industry had been looking for for some time. In ad hoc mode, multiple devices may communicate with each other without a central base station to act as a coordinator. Current ad hoc modes are specific to vendor firmware with major camps supporting different implementations.
The Wi-Fi certification of ad hoc mode should move all vendors into a common ad hoc standard which may be available through firmware upgrades for older equipment.
With 802.11i security standards due to be ratified by mid-2002, Cohen expects "that it's extremely likely that 'i' will be pulled into the next round, the next time we change the certification."
The new Wi-Fi5 logo for 802.11a devices and the soon-to-be-completed certification suite for that protocol, will roll out in spring 2002. Cohen said that a new symbol was needed and a new term to avoid users believing that 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz devices would interoperate.
Cohen also explained the distinction between promoting the term Wi-Fi as a generic alternative to 802.11b and the logo (or mark) used to brand products that meet the certification. "The logo is that mark of interoperability. The logo is trademarked," he said, and they enforce the rules surrounding its use.
In my view, Wi-Fi will become an even more important substitute for IEEE specification numbers. By the end of 2002, we could have a single device that conforms to 802.11a, b, e, g, h, and i. Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi5 sound like appealing alternatives.