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August 2, 2004

Policy Won't Re-write History

A new Wi-Fi Alliance policy won't deliver judgment on a long-running he-said/she-said argument between Broadcom and Atheros: The new alliance policy, introduced in mid-July, forbids the certification of products that contain proprietary extensions that negatively affect other certified products. It would seem that the policy might finally lead to action from the alliance either confirming or denying Broadcom's accusations against Atheros, but, in fact, such definitive action appears unlikely.

Late last year, Broadcom alleged that products with Atheros Super G chips, which can employ channel bonding techniques to boost speed, cause service degradation on nearby networks that use Broadcom chips. Tim Higgins of Tom's Networking conducted his own tests and confirmed that Super G chips in certified Netgear products do degrade the service of Broadcom networks when the Turbo mode for channel bonding is enabled. Broadcom also sponsored a report by the Tolly Group to back up its claims.

Atheros has consistently denied that Super G chips cause degradation in any real-world deployment.

The Wi-Fi Alliance said that its new policy would allow the revocation of previous certifications, though such action appears unlikely. "This is designed principally as a go-forward policy," said Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance. "But we do have the ability that if someone does bring something to our attention we can always look at it." In fact, he added that the alliance didn't actually need the formal policy because it could always have re-considered certified products.

If the alliance does decertify products, it won't officially announce the action, Hanzlik said.

D-Link products using the Super G chips have not been decertified nor does it appear that Netgear products using the chips have been decertified.

However, because the Super G products haven't been decertified doesn't mean that the alliance necessarily believes the products don't cause interference. "By nature these groups are political," noted Michael Wolf, a principal analyst with In-Stat/MDR. "Time and time again we see companies coming in with their own agendas and they can sway things." Wolf doesn't know that's the case with the alliance and the Super G products, but he says that the alliance's actions may not necessarily reflect its findings. Groups like the Wi-Fi Alliance are run by the member companies which may be able to influence the group's actions, although neither Atheros nor Broadcom are currently represented on the board.

Most vendors believe it is unlikely that the alliance will decertify products. One vendor spokesman who asked not to be named said that he understood that the policy was created mainly to protect against new products coming to market aimed at pre-802.11n releases. An Atheros spokesman had the same impression. "They may be marking a line in the sand, saying be forewarned to make sure your products interoperate," said Dave Borison, product line manager at Atheros.

While Broadcom believes that the new policy was largely driven by its accusations of problems with Super G, David Cohen, senior product marketing manager at Broadcom, isn't convinced that Super G products will be decertified. "We've made the alliance aware that there are some products on the market that may be utilizing channel bonding but it's up to the alliance to take action," he said. Cohen is one of the founders of the Wi-Fi Alliance.

He also expects the policy to mostly be relevant for the future. "It strikes me as more of a go-forward policy," he said. He said Broadcom has gotten mixed signals from the alliance on the issue of revocation and suggests that the policy might need some clarification.

Cohen is convinced that products with Super G chips wouldn't pass the new policy. "We can say that several products out there on the market today running Super G would fail the new policy. We can say that for sure," he said.

The new policy wasn't created solely in response to the Atheros/Broadcom issue, said Hanzlik. "We saw that there would be more and more need for manufacturers to differentiate their products that we just saw this as becoming more and more the norm, not the exception," he said.

The alliance won't begin testing new products against all existing products to make sure that there is no interference. Instead, it will rely on a number of sources including its own technical staff, reports from analysts and the media, and members to identify potential interference. In the future, if an issue is raised by any of those sources, the alliance has a formal process to do additional testing or discuss the issue with vendors. "We can engage it on a case by case basis. This is not something that needs to apply to every implementation," Hanzlik said.

While this policy puts extra pressure on vendors to ensure that their proprietary extensions don't negatively affect other products, most agree that vendors will still actively pursue certification. Enterprise customers are particularly interested in buying certified products so vendors servicing that market will continue to regard certification as very important, said Borison.

Vendors will continue to aggressively develop proprietary extensions, they'll just need to be careful about it, Cohen said. "They're not trying to homogenize the market and say there can be no extensions or differentiation," he said. "They're just saying that you can't cause interference."