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WLAN group shakes up standards

WLAN group shakes up standards

SAN FRANCISCO: The recent formation of a consortium for high-speed wireless LANs brings together more than two dozen vendors from both sides of an ongoing standards debate, but a prominent chip vendor claims core members of the group have sidestepped and disrupted the standards process.

Intel, Broadcom, Atheros Communications and Cisco Systems, among others, have announced the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC) with the stated intention of breaking a deadlock over the IEEE 802.11n specification. That emerging standard is designed to boost real-world wireless LAN throughput to at least 100Mbps.

However, Airgo Networks, one of the biggest vendors of chips used today in pre-standard high-speed gear, claims the chip vendors behind EWC are disrupting the standards process.

Negotiations over 802.11n had been characterised by conflict between two groups called World-Wide Spectrum Efficiency (WWiSE) and TGn Sync.

FACTIONAL FIGHTING

As of earlier this year, Broadcom, Airgo Networks, Motorola were members of WWiSE, and Intel, Atheros and Cisco belonged to TGn Sync. The long fight between those factions has caused 802.11n to take much longer to develop than previous specifications.

For any proposal to be adopted, IEEE rules require approval by 75 per cent of the standard's task group. In July the 802.11n group was deadlocked, with neither WWiSE nor TGn Sync able to garner that much support.

A joint proposal committee was formed so backers of both plans could come up with a compromise and bring it back to the IEEE task group. That wasn't working, according to chief technology officer at Atheros, Bill McFarland.

"For whatever reason, that organisation was not able to make very rapid progress," McFarland said. "When we got together this other group of companies, they moved very rapidly to create a complete specification." Forming the EWC itself required compromise among the members, McFarland said. The formation of EWC really was just one particular set of compromises that merges WWiSE and TGn Sync together, he said.

Members of the EWC believe the group's specification has enough support to be approved by the 802.11n task group at its next meeting in November.

"We think we're getting there," director of product marketing at Broadcom, Bill Bunch, said. "We think it makes a lot of sense to a lot of the voters."

In the meantime, none of the companies had stopped work on the joint proposal committee, he said.

Airgo, which has not joined the EWC, sees the situation differently.

As soon as the joint proposal committee started meeting, major chip vendors at the core of the EWC were already working on setting up that group behind the scenes, president and chief executive officer at Airgo, Greg Raleigh, said. He complained that some members had access to the EWC specification ahead of others.

The EWC was not immediately available to respond to Raleigh's comments, but representatives of the group said they thought Airgo had seen the specification.

FASTER OR SLOWER

Raleigh said the formation of the EWC would slow down, not accelerate, the development of 802.11n.

"The joint proposal group would have come up with a compromise by now if the initial private efforts between those core silicon competitors had not disrupted the process," he said.

The conflict between Airgo and the EWC echoed competition among pre-standard products, analysts said.

The booming wireless LAN industry had put more pressure on companies to get faster products out, an analyst at Current Analysis, Peter Jarich, said.

Vendors had gone ahead with pre-standard technologies that build up a momentum of their own just through sales volume, he said.

The two most prominent makers of chips for next-generation gear were Atheros and Airgo, IDC analyst, Celeste Crystal, said. Both companies' approaches use multiple antennas, but were otherwise mostly different.

Crystal said the EWC companies did not want to hasten development of a standard because they knew large enterprises wouldn't invest in faster wireless LAN gear until it was standardised.

Even though the EWC brings together WWiSE and TGn Sync members, it's too soon to tell whether it will bring peace to high-speed Wi-Fi, according to Jarich of Current Analysis.

"You run into the potential of having three groups now," Jarich said.

A drawn-out standards process might even lead users to grab whatever is on the market, if demanding applications such as voice over Wi-Fi were widely adopted, he said.

However, the Wi-Fi Alliance, which tests and certifies 802.11 products for interoperability, will wait. Meanwhile, one EWC member is putting real product behind the group's rhetoric.

Marvell Semiconductor has announced it is already shipping a family of chipsets based on the EWC specification.

The 88W8360 chipsets are intended for use in access points, PCs, set-top boxes, residential gateways and other consumer appliances, according to Marvell.

The chipsets were available in sample quantities and the company was working with equipment vendors to develop products, general manager of Marvell's Broadband Home Business Unit, Kishore Manghnani, said.

The company believed that whatever the 802.11n standard looked like, Marvell would be able to upgrade the chipsets' firmware or software to meet it, Manghnani said.


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