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

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

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It was indeed. In the beginning, in 2003, there were four major groups fighting to decide 802.11n's fate. Two of these standardization efforts -- a joint submission from Mitsubishi and Motorola and another from Qualcomm -- quickly died off.

After some further consolidation, that left two major groups. The first was the Task Group 'n' Synchronization, or TGn Sync. It counted Intel, Atheros Communications and Nortel among its members. The other was World-Wide Spectrum Efficiency (WWiSE). Airgo Networks, the first company to deliver network chipsets that used MIMO (multiple-in, multiple-out technology), led this group.

Those two groups spent time battling with each other, but neither could gain the upper hand. With a 75% super-majority of the task force needed to approve the standard, the battle over whose version of the standard should prevail seemed unending.

Exhausted, in late 2005 the pair finally appeared to have hashed out their disagreements in the Enhanced Wireless Consortium and to have reached a compromise that would become the official IEEE standard, Updegrove says. But Airgo continued to hold out for its own take on the standard and it was able to block passage of the compromise version in mid-2006.

Adding insult to injury, even after delaying tactic, the authors and editors of the 802.11n standard had to wade through more than 12,000 comments on the 2005 "final" draft. As Bill McFarland, CTO at Atheros, a Wi-Fi chip vendor, and one of the editors and writers of the draft, observed at the time, "There were a lot of duplicate comments, and three people filed comments for each and every blank line in the document. The physical process of dealing with so many comments is tedious and time-consuming."

In December 2006, Qualcomm purchased Airgo. With new ownership, Qualcomm/Airgo stopped fighting against the search for a consensus on the standard, and the first unified version, Draft 2, was passed in March 2007.

Further drafts were then passed in quick order, and it looked like 802.11n would finally be an established standard and that users could buy 802.11n equipment with certainty that it would interoperate by 2008. As Molly Mulloy, spokesperson of wireless OEM Broadcom, explained, "In 2008, we believed that draft 2.0 of the 802.11n specification was very solid. All of the major technical items had been resolved, and only relatively minor wording issues remained."

Well, that was the plan. But, alas, there was one last major issue -- a big, bad patent problem.

Before the IEEE will approve any given standard, everyone with a patent that touches that standard must sign a LoA (Letter of Agreement). The LoA states that the patent holder won't sue anyone using his or her patent in a standard-compatible device. In this case, the holdout was CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization), an Australian government research group that held a patent that concerned the development of a wirless LAN. CSIRO refused to sign the 802.11n-related LOA.

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