Superfast Wi-Fi Standard Solidifies

Sometime tonight, voting among the engineers charged with developing the IEEE's 802.11n Wi-Fi standard will end, and smart money says the results--to be announced within days--will be a second draft of the superfast standard.

For those who don't follow the ins and outs of wireless networking, the 802.11n standard promises theoretical maximum speeds of up to 300 megabits per second, compared to 54 mbps for its predecessor, 802.11g, and 11 mbps for the original 802.11b standard.

Of course, real-world throughput is invariably a lot slower, especially if great distances and data encryption are involved. In our tests last fall of the first Wi-Fi gear based on the initial draft of the 802.11n standard, though, we saw speeds approaching those of ethernet connections at close range.

If, as widely expected, the IEEE 802.11n committee does approve the latest version (submitted as draft 1.10) as draft 2, it will be good news for people who had either already invested in Wi-fi products based on the initial draft of 802.11n or have been holding off on buying draft-n products in anticipation of more stable and compatible products.

While final publication of the completed standard is still a long way off (thank complicated IEEE procedures for that), vendors say the new draft finally settles issues that have made for iffy interoperability and significant performance differences between products based on the original draft-n chips from different vendors.

More importantly, major Wi-Fi chip vendors say the first draft-n products, which began shipping last spring, will be firmware-upgradable to compliance with draft 2. This means owners of existing Wi-Fi equipment should begin checking the vendor's Web site for free draft 2 firmware updates, which should begin appearing by early spring.

Last, but not least, agreement on draft 2 puts the Wi-Fi Alliance on track to start compatibility testing for products based on draft 2 in late spring or early summer. The Alliance, the trade group that for years has performed similar testing for products based on various 802.11 specs (including 802.11b, g, and a), is working on a logo program to help Wi-Fi buyers identify which draft-2 802.11n products have been certified interoperable with other draft-2 products.

What's New in Draft 2?

So what's new with the latest draft, which follows a rocky start for products based on the initial draft? (In our October review of the first 802.11n gear, PC World recommended holding off on purchases because of uncertainty over the upgrade path and unstable performance.)

The ability to upgrade existing draft-n products to draft 2 is obviously huge for those who took a chance on these early routers and PC cards (most vendors did not guarantee such firmware upgradability). Compatibility improvements should also be significant: the new spec settles once and for all something called "Information Elements," which allows devices based on draft-n chips from different vendors to recognize each other as birds of a feather.

In our initial tests, products from different vendors could only interoperate at 802.11g speeds for which they had been Wi-Fi Alliance certified. Major chip vendors Atheros and Broadcom say they'd been working together on this problem and had achieved 802.11n-speed interoperability for their products subsequent to our testing last summer, but all products (regardless of vendor) that the Wi-Fi Alliance certifies for Draft 2 of 802.11n should work together at top speed.

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