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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This led to a series of patent lawsuits. Apple, Dell, Intel, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Netgear all attempted to overturn CSIRO's 802.11n-related patents in court. They failed. Then, finally, in April 2009, the Wi-Fi vendors and allies gave up, paid up and signed patent licenses with CSIRO.

While the exact terms of all these deals are under nondisclosure agreements, the end result was that the 802.11n standardization process started moving quickly forward again. So it's logical to assume that the settlement included an IEEE-acceptable LoA.

This means that, at long last, we will finally see interoperable 802.11n Wi-Fi access points, network routers and NICs (network interface cards). Vendors promise that customers will be able to update equipment build to the most recent draft 802.11n -- 2008 and newer -- to the new, final standard.

Some industry watchers don't see the final standard as being that big a deal. Analyst Paul DeBeasi of the Burton Group, for example, believes that the real battle was won when Draft 2 was finally approved back in March 2007. In a blog posting, DeBeasai wrote, "The sorry fact is that the final ratification will have virtually no impact on the wireless industry. This is because what customers care about most is product interoperability. The Wi-Fi Alliance stepped into the standards void in 2007 and began certifying product interoperability based upon IEEE 802.11n draft 2.0. The fact of the matter is that the Wi-Fi Alliance did such a great job with their 802.11n certification program as to make the final IEEE standard a non-event."


But other analysts predict that the standard is just now taking off. Victoria Fodale, an analyst with In-Stat, expects that 802.11n chipset revenue will surpass that of 802.11g this year, with a total Wi-Fi chipset revenue of over $4 billion by 2012. Overall revenue for products based on the most recent standard will be greater than that for 802.11g in 2012, she says.

It won't just be computer networks zooming along at high speeds, though. Fodale also sees shipments of 802-11n-enabled TVs, set-top boxes, personal media players, digital still/video cameras and even mobile phones increasing quickly.

At that point, 802.11n may have finally caught up with itself.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology since CP/M was the dominant desktop operating system. He's a Computerworld blogger, and you can learn more about Steven, and read some of his other stories, on his Practical Technology site.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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