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Fast Track to High-speed wireless

In September 2003, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) announced plans to develop a standard that would raise the effective throughput of wireless local area networks (WLANs) to at least 100Mbps.

Offering to triple the average speed of the 802.11a standard, and double the number of possible user connections, the 802.11n standard was immediately earmarked for use in airports, hotels, cafes and other public spaces. As the first wave of digital home entertainment hit the scene, the 802.11n standard with its potential to provide multiple data channels, was also promoted as ideally suited to data-intensive multi-media, and high-resolution digital video.

This is when it all got a little messy.

Already offering per-standard products with 802.11n specifications, telecommunications giants and IT vendors lined up against each other in three separate camps.

In the yellow corner the WwiSE camp, comprising heavyweights such as HP, Broadcom, AT&T, Texas Instruments, Motorola and Conexant, argued in favour of using four MIMO antennas, providing reduced but more reliable throughput.

In the blue corner the TGn Sync group boasted members including Agere Systems, Cisco Systems, Sony, Toshiba, Samsung and Nortel. It argued in favour of two MIMO antennas, and 40MHz channels.

And to confuse the issue further a third proposal called MitMot was also launched by Mitsubishi and Motorola.

None were able to secure the 75 per cent of votes needed from the IEEE's working group that is necessary to create a fully ratified standard. While the TGn Sync proposal was ahead by a nose in the last vote in September, it was forced to join with its competitors to create a joint proposal.

This was presented to the IEEE working group in November. The outcome is expected to be revealed later this month. Now that the three groups are working together full specifications are expected by mid-year.

If all goes according to plan the 802.11n specifications will fully ratified and published by April 2007, by which time the market for high-speed WLANs will be well underway.

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Not a moment too soon

As the 802.11n specifications take the long and winding road towards the creation of an industry standard, researchers and vendors are already spruking its benefits, suggesting the increased speed and throughput will finally see the corporate sector go wireless.

Networking analyst with IT research group IDC, Shing Quah, said 33 per cent of businesses had some kind of Wi-Fi network in 2005, up from 21 per cent in 2004. Quah said the added speed and throughput associated with the 802.11n standard would see wireless networking substantially improve its foothold in the corporate sector.

"There is growth in terms of wireless in the corporate sector, which will become stronger when the 802.11n standard is ratified, especially as corporations are looking at upgrading their infrastructure," she said. "A lot of the decision comes back to cost, and if with the new standard a wireless network is less expensive, easier to install and maintain and adds security to the system, then it will be an easy choice."

However, with many vendors already releasing so called pre-standard 802.11n infrastructure, resellers and consumers need to be aware that such products may ultimately be incompatible with the final standardised versions.

"The resellers need to hold out for equipment that is certified," Gartner analyst, Robin Simpson, said. "For the customers standards will make products cheaper, for the reseller standards will mean less hassles when installing wireless infrastructure, but for the vendors it will mean increased sales and increased competition which isn't necessarily all that good."

Despite a concerted effort on behalf of a series of vendors offering pre-standard products, consumers and the corporate sector alike were holding out for the fully ratified standard, Simpson said.

"Over the last year business has been buying into Wi-Fi, but they have been wary of the risks and focused on standards," he said. And while public hotspots have been a hot topic since the turn of the century, Simpson was yet to be convinced by a user-pays model for such a service.

"The public hotspot market isn't doing too well, and the new standard won't make much of a difference until someone comes up with the right business model," he said.

"The cafes that are offering hot spots are not necessarily interested in the sort of business wireless Internet access attracts. There is a lot of talk but there really aren't any other models that are working at the moment."

What resellers were left with when it comes to the 802.11n standard when ratified, was a mixture of employee-driven corporate implementations and media-rich home implementations, Simpson said.

"In many ways the uptake in the corporate sector is being driven by employees who have implemented a wireless LAN in their homes," he said. "I expect the 802.11n standard to take the same path."

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Show me the money

As ratification draws closer, resellers would do well to look to vendors that are also keeping a close eye on potential markets for this technology. With potential markets in mind, lead systems engineer for networking vendor Juniper, Greg Bunt, is keeping a watchful eye on the comings and goings of the IEEE working group.

"We are talking about an evolutionary technology," he said. "We started at 11Mbps with 802.11b grew through 54Mbps with 802.11g and now we're looking at 100Mbps with 802.11n."

Far more than a gimmick, Bunt claimed the increased speed will see wireless grow substantially, not only in the corporate sector, but also in the small business space, where shifting offices is common and fixed costs are closely monitored.

"When you are talking about small firms, of less than 10 people, you have to be really flexible about your input costs," he said. "The 802.11n standard will make it cheaper to set up a wireless local network, for businesses that change office frequently."

While costs will strengthen the position of wireless networking amongst smaller companies, Bunt said the new standard would also prove a boon for the upper end of town.

"Certain sectors such as manufacturing and distribution have already bought into wireless networking, however there is still a lot of opportunities for growth in the banking and finance arenas, as well as in the health sector," he said.

Not only will the faster transfer speeds enable more data intensive applications to be used over a wireless corporate network, the improved quality of service should also allow for voice over wireless internet protocols to become a reality, business development manager for Intel in Australia, Sean Casey, said.

In a horses-for-courses approach, Casey claimed resellers would do well to focus on applications, emphasising the quality of service aspect of 802.11n to sell into the corporate sector, and its capacity to service media-rich services such as video streaming in the home sector.

"We are already looking at office environments where 70 per cent of notebooks are wirelessly enabled," he said. "Once you add VoIP into the mix, and you can just pick up your notebook and take it home then, for the first time, you have a truly mobile office."

IDC's Quah also pointed to the improved quality of service promised by 802.11n.

She suggested this might feed in well to the growth of VoIP in the corporate sector.

"We will see wireless networks grow into the retail, manufacturing, health and government sectors early on," Quah said. "For the first time, we will see wireless networks capable of carrying voice applications, and this will be an area of significant growth."

Currently, the home market has been buying into wireless technology more enthusiastically than its corporate counterpart, and some believe 802.11n will turn the tables on this market.

"In the corporate sector the interest up until now has been in the 802.11a and 802.11g protocols because they are faster than 802.11b," Intel's Casey said. "But up until now 802.11b has been more than enough in the home."

In a similar vein, managing director of networking vendor Netgear, Ian McLean, warned 100Mbps was probably overkill for a home network which generally feeds into an Internet connection of only 512Kbps. Nonetheless, the 802.11n standard may finally provide a cogent reason for uptake in the corporate sector, he said.

"The hold up in the corporate sector is that most companies have already invested significantly in a wired network, and they are not about to throw out that out for something new unless it's also faster and more reliable," McLean said.

However, the uptake of wireless networking in the home market would lead to growth in corporate wireless networking, he said.

"It's a generational thing as well," Mclean said. "Kids that grow up with laptops at home and then in school, will simply expect to have them in their working environment as well."

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Closing the loop

Although the corporate sector has been holding off on wireless network purchases due to concerns about speed and security, the home sector has embraced the technology - and is set to be a major consumer of the new 802.11n technology as well.

Casey pointed out that the yet-to-be-ratified technology was also likely to play a major role in the home once digital entertainment technology became more pervasive.

"Wireless is going to continue to grow in the home, not only with the 802.11n standard, but with others which are set to come online," he said. "They will enable the creation of wireless home digital media networks, and provide the infrastructure required for services like video streaming."

So whether it's VoIP applications in the corporate market, rapid affordable deployment amongst SMBs or digital home entertainment networks in the home, the 802.11n standard is set to open up a range of opportunities for resellers.

And while it's taken a while for the IEEE working party to reach an accord on the technical details, even this delay may well contribute to what will ultimately be the most appropriate technical configuration for resellers and consumers alike.

"The different groups in the IEEE have been arguing about highly technical issues, and in a way it's important that the engineers put on their thinking caps and take the time to get the specifications right," IDC's Quah said.

"There's been a lot of argument, but overall the IEEE system is set up so that the best technology is what is ratified in the end, and that's where we're heading."