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Draft-n kit will work with final 802.11n standard

Wi-Fi group's basic test won't change

The Wi-Fi Alliance will not change the basic requirements of its IEEE 802.11n certification process when the current draft specification gives way to a formal standard later this year.

The industry group's decision ensures that hundreds of already approved products will be interoperable with gear based on the final standard, avoiding integration headaches that might have plagued users trying to add to their networks.

The 11n standard for high-speed wireless LANs set off a battle among vendors that lasted so long that the Wi-Fi Alliance, the main industry group, began certifying products based on a draft version of the specification in 2007. About 600 products have been certified based on that draft, according to the group, allowing consumers to buy routers, access points and client devices with confidence they will work with other Draft-11n gear. 

Draft 2.0 of the standard delivered the key benefit of 11n, a boost in performance to 100Mb per second or more, and some other features. The draft products have sold well, but some enterprises have held off on investing in them because they wanted the assurance of a final, formal standard, according to industry analysts. A large organisation has to be able to invest in many kinds of devices in different locations and know they will work together. 

Now the 802.11n standard has been forwarded on for its final vote, in the IEEE Standards Board Review Committee. That group is likely to approve the specification at its next meeting on September. But the Alliance will keep the current requirements in place for basic certification of 802.11n gear, so products will continue to be judged on the same rules, according to Kelly Davis-Felner, marketing director of the group. It will only add optional capabilities for which vendors can choose to have their products certified. Currently shipping products won't even need to be retested until they make significant firmware changes or add new features, per the group's usual rules. 

The Wi-Fi Alliance expects certification testing based on the final standard to start in late September at independent labs around the world. Certified products should hit the market within a few months after that. Although draft products won't have to be retested, most gear will undergo new certifications because of product update cycles, Davis-Felner said. 

There are only four notable features being added to the 11n standard as options, Davis-Felner said. 

- Packet aggregation, which reduces the amount of overhead communication required for data transfers;

- Coexistence, in which a product that can use two adjacent channels will back down if that interferes with another network;

- The ability to use three spatial streams among multiple antennas for higher throughput;

- Space-time block coding, which prevents a client that can only use one spatial stream from slowing down a network that uses multiple streams.

The IEEE created the 802.11 family of wireless LAN standards in the 1990s, and the Wi-Fi Alliance was formed to certify that products met those standards and worked with each other. But when the Wi-Fi Alliance chose not to wait for a final IEEE standard, it gathered the force of the market behind it. 

"It really coalesced the industry around that set of features," Davis-Felner said.

When several proprietary pre-11n technologies came on the market during the drawn-out IEEE standards process, the Alliance acted because the brand consumers had relied on was in jeopardy, said In-Stat analyst Victoria Fodale.

"I don't think they really had a choice. The vendors weren't going to wait," Fodale said. "They had to move. What was (Wi-Fi) going to mean to consumers?"

Completion of the standard probably won't unleash much pent-up demand for 11n among consumers, Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney said. But some businesses have probably held off buying.

"You might see some slight uptick - dampened by the economy -- in the enterprise," Dulaney said.


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