802.11n: Fast Wi-Fi's long, tortuous road to standardization

What took fast Wi-Fi so long to catch on?

For a technology that's all about being fast, 802.11n Wi-Fi sure took its sweet time to become a standard.

In fact, until September 2009, it wasn't, officially, even a standard. But that didn't stop vendors from implementing it for several years beforehand, causing confusion and upset when networking gear that used draft standards from different suppliers wouldn't always work at the fastest possible speed when connected.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. But, for years, the Wi-Fi hardware big dogs fought over the 802.11n protocol like it was a chew toy. The result: it took five drama-packed years for the standard to come to fruition.

The delay was never over the technology. In fact, the technical tricks that give 802.11n its steady connection speeds of 100Mbps to 140Mbps have been well-known for years.

Instead, the answer is the usual one behind standards wars: mud-wrestling among major vendors. They squared off over which approach would become the one, true, money-making standard. In this case, that wrestling match hit a new low point -- several times, just when it seemed like agreement had been reached, it turned out that a new fight was brewing instead.

As Andrew Updegrove, a partner with the law firm Gesmer Updegrove LLP and well-known standards advocate, says, a major reason it took so long for 802.11n to be finalized was "the amount of money at stake and the number of vendors in the marketplace whose lives can be made easier or harder depending on the outcome." In addition, the potential value of the technology kept growing "as Wi-Fi became more ubiquitous, in more and more devices, for more and more purposes."

On top of that, Updegrove continues, while the basic technology was well understood, there were all kinds of small differences among approaches that could be debated. Among these: the number of channels, and their sizes, that a single 802.11n device could handle.

Another complication, he says, is that 802.11n attracted an "incredibly large number of submissions as candidates for the final gold star." There were dozens of versions submitted to the deciding standards body, the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), all with fairly minor variations.

Last, but not least, Updegrove explains, the IEEE "operates on consensus, which means, as a practical matter, that competing submitters have to cut deals and enter into alliances to get down to a single winner, often by successive mergers of competing groups of submissions. This alone is a very time-consuming process."

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