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Ready or Not, Here Comes 802.11n

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While the Web 2.0 world was busy chattering about the looming battle between Google Office and Microsoft Office, the world of wireless networks is playing host to its own version of WWF. The center of controversy is 802.11n, a new standard that proposes to dramatically boosts the speeds and reliability of the WiFi networks. On the opposing sides are two companies – Airgo Networks, tiny start-up, and Broadcom, which is only a few years removed from its own start-up phase.

The two companies have taken polar opposite approach to building MIMO-enhanced WiFi (802.11n) chips. Broadcom is itching to stamp out silicon that supports the 802.11n draft specifications and claims that this silicon can be upgraded via software. Airgo, on the other hand says that since there is no draft – everything is still at a proposal stage – Broadcom is trying to hoodwink everyone.

On March 10, WiFi Networking News reports that the 802.11n draft was approved- for voting. It will now be sent out for ballots and it will be another 40 days before the results of that come back and are collated. In other words, it won’t be well into the summer of 2006, before a final draft is given the green light. It is understandable why Broadcom is trying to jump the gun. It had pulled a similar stunt when the 802.11g standard was being put in place and ended up being a big kahuna in that market.

As these chipmakers claw each others’ eyes out, Netgear, is planning to start selling pre-draft 802.11n gear in June and issued a big press release saying: look how cool and fast we will be. They claim it will do data transfer at 600 Mb/s. Whatever – just don’t call it 802.11n, because according to folks at Wi-Fi Alliance that would be misleading.

Today, Airgo issued a statement pointing out that, “Specifically, if “Draft N” or “N Ready” products are released to market based on Draft 1.0 of the standard, they will severely degrade – or even disable – nearby 802.11b and 802.11g networks.” Greg Raleigh, CEO of Airgo Networks said, “At the same time it is crucial to retain complete interoperability with existing 802.11b and 802.11g devices.” Of course, not to be left behind, the company said it is launching True-MIMO products with ASUSTek and these will be able to handle data transfer at speeds up to 240Mbps.

To be honest, these guys better get their act together – given that most broadband providers including BELLS and MSOs are planning to include wireless in their gateways, do they really think they can decide what happens in the future.

This long drawn out drama that doesn’t mean squat to consumers who are screaming for simplicity and easy to set-up gear. It creates even more confusion in the minds of gear buyers.

As an aside, I propose that the CEO of every single company that sells Wi-Fi and consumer networking gear should do an informal Mom-Test. If their mom can set-up a network using their gear, then they are allowed to sell it to the public. If not, they should try and ease the consumer pain. For instance, if Netgear paid that much attention to ease of use, then they wouldn’t have done so poorly in their last quarter.

7 Responses to “Ready or Not, Here Comes 802.11n”

  1. I don’t agree with your statement that this is Airgo versus Broadcom. In fact, it’s Airgo versus its future. Broadcom, Marvell, Intel, and Atheros came up with a proposal that was adopted by the Task Group N joint proposal group, and then approved as a draft within 802.11n in January. Last week’s vote isn’t as you describe: Draft 1.0 was accepted, which was little changed (I was told by a few parties) from the 0.2 accepted in January. The balloting happening between now and May is for comments to make minor or major changes to the draft.

    Airgo’s 3rd generation chipsets were tested by Tom’s Networking several weeks ago — see Dennis’s link above — and found in that testing to cause significant problems with nearby 802.11g networks. Airgo tried to explain this to me, but their explanations were unconvincing because after justifying certain technical choices, they said that firmware upgrades would change those choices to conform more closely to what the Tom’s Networking reviewer, Tim Higgins, thought should be the behavior.

    There’s a common misconception that Airgo has been manufacturing 802.11n equipment. Airgo’s chips, while impressive, have always implemented just a portion of 802.11n and some elements that won’t be in 802.11n at all. MIMO was their key concept, but 802.11n is a lot more than MIMO.

  2. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t understand the technical specs at all – I’m just a user, so my experience qualifies as a “Mom-test”. Around Christmas I set up a pre-Mimo router from Belkin. It appeared to work seamlessly with it’s own paired network card as well as two other Centrino laptops that were on the “g” standard. I cannot qualify 600%, but I know I received a strong signal in the furthermost part of the backyard where previously (g router) there was no signal at all.

  3. I will put my faith in Airgo in that they have developed and continue (quietly) to enhance the MIMO functionality in existing Netgear, Belkin and Linksys products. The Standard idea is okay but if it deviates from what the Airgo design we will all be at risk. Broadcom is desperate to release and position their product to the market and will even release something based on an inferior and in this case interference prone design.
    One need only look at what the above 3 main players in this Wireless space are using in their radios to know where the market should focus.


  4. I thought we were going to find a better test for tech ignorance than picking on Moms?

    The new silicon for 802.11n has the guys in the office slavering. Wonder what the throughput of the kit will be (considering the real world throughput of 802.11g is quite disappointing…)