Wi-Fi Alliance to certify prestandard 802.11n gear

Group will sign off on parts of the proposed standard that aren't expected to change

The Wi-Fi Alliance will start certifying next-generation wireless LAN products in the first half of next year no matter what.

In a break with its usual practice, the industry group plans to start signing off on the faster, longer-range gear before the official standard for it is finished, said Managing Director Frank Hanzlik.

The Wi-Fi Alliance tests wireless LAN products for interoperability and ensures that they have certain features. Its well-known seal of approval and the way Wi-Fi products from different vendors work together relatively smoothly has been key to the success of wireless LANs. But the group doesn't set the standards itself: Generally, the Wi-Fi Alliance has waited for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers to sign off on new specifications in its 802.11 standards family before the Wi-Fi logo goes on the first boxes.

The alliance will do the same with 802.11n, the major new standard now being hashed out. But with the battle over 802.11n expected to delay its final approval until 2008, the group is also acting quickly. In the first half of next year, in Phase 1 of its certification, it will test products for interoperability and certify them using whatever parts of the standard in progress that it believes are solid and unlikely to change, Hanzlik said. Boxes with a new Wi-Fi logo -- whose name has yet to be determined -- should start to appear by the end of June, according to Hanzlik. They will be clearly marked as prestandard, according to the group. Phase 2 will use the final standard, whenever it's finished.

The 802.11n standard is designed to boost wireless LAN throughput to more than 100Mbit/sec. at close range and provide usable speeds in every room of a single-family house. It may also include features for sending and receiving big entertainment files such as movies and for increasing battery life in handheld devices. But a nasty fight over how to use multiple antennas and radios to achieve that performance boost has pushed back the expected approval of the specification several times. In the meantime, many vendors have shipped "pre-N" products and are now selling gear based on the first draft of the standard, which earlier this year failed to receive the votes it needed for approval.

If all goes well, a "first ballot" version of the standard will be approved by next March and form the basis of the Phase 1 certifications, Hanzlik said. If not, the group will look at the emerging standard in whatever form it takes and decide what parts to use. When it comes to certifying products based on the final standard, the Wi-Fi Alliance expects to ensure backward compatibility with the gear approved in Phase 1, Hanzlik said.

Some chip-set makers have already conducted interoperability testing of their draft 802.11n products, but vendors strongly back the Wi-Fi Alliance's dual-stage plan nevertheless, he said.

"The only way to really get the right kind of user experience is if there's an industrywide interoperability program," Hanzlik said.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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