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« Philly CIO in Depth | Main | SK-Earthlink Links South Korean Mobile Operator, Earthlink Networks »

January 26, 2005

AP on a, b, g

Let's compose a little song: AP covers A, B, G, I, and sometimes E: Is it my constant singing of children's songs to a baby that makes me think of the 802.11 working group and Wi-Fi Alliance's alphabet soup in the form of a chant with music? I don't know, but a colleague at Associated Press filed this cogent deciphering of the goop into coherent advice for consumers.

The brief version: buy 802.11g now but not pre-N.

I get the last word in this AP story when I talk about pre-N or early MIMO gear: "You'll be buying equipment that will be obsolete in the near future and will become cheaper in the near future," said Fleishman. And I stand by that remark.

If any manufacturer producing MIMO equipment today is willing to guarantee on the record that they will offer fully compatible final 802.11n upgrades--firmware or even hardware--to the certified Wi-Fi version of that standard for equipment that a consumer buys today, I'll recant, and praise them lavishly, as it's the only way to ensure that consumers don't pursue a near-term dead end that costs more.

No manufacturer is willing to say that what they ship today will work with the highest speeds of 802.11n. There's even a high chance that equipment from different vendors using different chips won't interoperate at speeds above 802.11g using today's gear. You'll still get increased distance and throughput, but unless you have very specific needs today and can use homogeneous equipment, wait, wait, wait, wait.

"Who's the leader of our pack that's here for you or me? Eight oh two eleven g with double-u pee aaaaay!"

Update: I've had a little pushback on this post and my quote in the Associated Press. A few folks have written on forums that my statement closing the AP story applies to all technology. True, but this AP story was written with the consumer in mind, not the early adopter. Consumers who buy MIMO today need to have a compelling reason of range or throughput to opt for MIMO instead of 802.11g with the variety of range extension technology now offered by major chipmakers and consumer Wi-Fi manufacturers.

If you don't need range and speed, then why buy equipment that will be slower and almost certainly more expensive than the approved flavor of 802.11n next year? It's very likely that MIMO equipment sold by the end of 2005 will have dropped greatly in price and will more closely resemble what the final 802.11n spec will look like--there are only two MIMO proposals left to consider by the 802.11n group, which means it's getting clearer what the hardware requirements will be.

Some users need more range in their homes, can articulate that problem, and can attach that to a higher-priced alternative that meets their need. I haven't seen MIMO versus range extension for 802.11g tests, though, and I'd like to know whether any of the chipmakers' extensions are far outstripped by the current crop of MIMO devices. They may be, but with $60 to $80 for an 802.11g gateway and $130 to $150 for MIMO, the difference as to be significant.

Speed is certainly another consideration. MIMO offers greater throughput than any standard or proprietary wireless protocol in use. If you need speed, then it makes sense to buy new adapters and new gateways to achieve the best possible speed. But it's rare that a consumer needs that kind of speed right now; it's more of an early adopter or business concern.

I didn't mean to be fatuous by saying that technology becomes cheaper and obsolete over time. Rather, I wanted to emphasize that the very reason you would pay a premium for pre-802.11n devices right now will be so rapidly eroded that it's worth waiting. If you buy now, you get double the speed, triple the throughput, and double the cost. But you only get those speed improvements for as long as you choose to stick with the proprietary equipment throughout your network. Consumers do buy and sit on equipment for long periods of time which is why I urge patience for the truly next-generation flavor that maximizes flexibility through interoperability.

Wait about 12 months and you'll get quadruple the speed, as much as sextuple the throughput, and nowhere the cost of today's early MIMO devices--and a piece of equipment that has a future path for its highest speeds.

And you'll be ready for streaming video.


I would agree that most consumers don't need MIMO devices unless range and stability is an issue.

Range extension devices (high gain antennas and amps) won't always produce the results that people think they will.

Having installed the enterprise version of MIMO at a large facility providing public Internet access, the range and performance is remarkable even with 802.11g client devices.

Granted the eventual standards will lend itself to other attractive features like maybe streaming video to WiFi TVs, it's still 12 to 18 months away. Isn't that about the time to upgrade technology anyway?

With prices dropping on current MIMO products, I think it's worth the investment if you really need the range and performance now.


I always ask myself what the future holds for any gadget I buy. Anybody want the Zoomer sitting forlornly in a drawer? What happens to your XM radio if they go under? What happens to your TiVo if you can't connect to their service? I'm leery of any technology where you rely on the continued growth of the market to maintain the usefulness of the device. It's the chicken and egg problem with silicon and service. I'll wait for the products that meet the standards, thank you. (Okay, that rambled a bit, but hey.)

[Editor's note: An officemate has a Kerbango. Enough said. --gf]

I think the comment in the AP article that most people don't even use the speed of 802.11b because their DSL isn't even that fast is a little misleading. Many people today have more than one wireless computer, or wireless device. Or a friend comes over and logs on to their Wi-Fi to transfer files. Backups and transfers between these devices aren't limited by the DSL speed, and it is torture transfering files over 802.11b. So the consumer should never buy 802.11b based on the speed of their DSL.

[Editor's note: The AP story is terse, as is its nature, but my general recommendation is that consumers need a network several times faster than their broadband speed, and at least two or three times faster than what they do locally. If you play games, you need 802.11g. If you have 6 Mbps DSL (available all over the US now), you need 802.11g. If you have very specific high-bandwidth needs -- like early video streaming use -- then you might need 802.11n. --gf]