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New wireless 11g ‘standard’ ends in tears

Are we supposed to be surprised? logo It is nearly a year since NewsWireless Net warned of the disasters looming if American wireless manufacturers went ahead with 802.11g - the go-faster WiFi standard. Now, we hear of incompatibility problems between rival 11g products - discovered in "secret" testing sessions. Are we really supposed to be surprised?

You can, today, buy an 802.11g (pre-standard) device. This story was written on a PC connected over a Linksys WRT54G "Wireless-G" broadband router. It really is running at 54 megabits a second, giving a pretty good working approximation of 20 megabits per second throughput. And, the good news: it will work fine with my old WiFi cards on the 11b standard too, even though it slows down to 11 megabits (5 megabits throughput) to do so.

So why is this bad news? The answer is that since it works, in a one-off situation like this, people will, quite naturally, buy it. And then, the fun will begin; because there's no guarantee of compatibility with other 11 "pre-g" standards.

It was Nick Hunn, managing director of TDK Grey Cell, who first pointed out that there were serious problems with the idea of rolling out a 50 megabit version of the normal WiFi LAN technology, back in May last year.

Now, the WiFi Alliance has been forced to act as rival 50 megabit wireless systems have been launched on the market - without even the benefit of a finally agreed IEEE standard to conform to, and with no compatibility testing between the rivals, either.

As predicted, the result is a monumental cockup.

A scale of the disaster is the giveaway quote by Broadcom's Jeff Abramowitz, senior director of wireless LAN marketing: "Manufacturers understand what interoperability means to them, and they are moving in that direction."

This statement says, as honestly as you could ask for from a man speaking under NDA, that we aren't there yet.

Abramowitz can't say "they don't interwork" even though he may know for sure which ones cause the problems. He's not allowed to, because the tests where this bad news was established are secret. WiFi specialist site, Unstrung, reports: "Fueling industry anxiety is the fact that the results of the first interoperability trials, sponsored by the University of New Hampshire Interoperability Lab, won't be made public." Not only will they not be made public, but the people who attended them have actually been obliged to sign a non-disclosure agreement saying that they may not discuss them.

There would be no need to make the results secret if they all showed interworking.

Today, Nick Hunn responded angrily: "In my belief, 'standard' means something that everyone adheres to for the common good. Within the IEEE, former home of engineering, but now merely court jester to vested interest, standard seems to mean 'I'm already shipping it - look how big my wallet is,' or something very similar."

Hunn believes that the 11g concept is redundant, and should never have been developed. "I've already said that .11g is a bastard concept - it should have been put down eighteen months ago, but the chip vendors can't take the medicine of having to throw away their competing development," he commented. "As regards interoperability, at least the standard has taken a leaf out of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and comes with the comforting phrase "These are working drafts. Do not build product" on the front cover."

Our own tests here at NewsWireless Net have been hampered by samples which worked poorly. One vendor shipped faulty 54g equipment for review, and we found that not only was the signal indecipherable by an 802.11b adapter, but it was also jumbled when the mobile units moved more than 20 feet away. A replacement unit shipped two weeks later works correctly.

However, from reports leaking out of the New Hampshire University tests, it's clear that there have indeed been 54g and rival chip sets which did not work correctly with 11b "legacy" network equipment.

It isn't a trivial matter. To some, it will seem trivial, of course. They have PC notebooks with plug-in PC card adapters. Throw away the old 11b adapter, plug in the new 54g or alternative, and you're back online, four times faster - where's the downside, apart from the upgrade price?

But to many, there is a different problem; they have notebooks or pocket PCs or other devices which have the WiFi wireless built in. Many PC makers have already started shipping dual standard PCs, with 11b and 11a, not 11g, built in. They will perhaps be able to plug a new adapter card in, but the support costs for a corporate user of wireless are going to be substantial.

The other problem is that while 11b and 11g are supposed to be compatible, that comes at a cost. The cost is speed. As long as there is an old legacy 11b unit broadcasting packets, the 11g devices will have to switch mode to 11b, and run at a maximum of 11 megabits.

Some fear that manufacturers will deal with this the cruel way; they will simply make 11g units that go diplomatically deaf when an 11b card walks into the room, and ignore it. Hints from the test laboratory suggest this has already happened.

Back in May last year, we quoted Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds saying: "Think of the wireless spectrum as a three-lane highway in which all drivers are required to change lanes every 10 seconds — not so bad when the roads are empty, but a probable disaster when traffic mounts. The ruling makes life easier for designers of devices supporting multiple protocols."

The biggest loser, here, is almost certainly the WiFi Alliance, which was the watchdog that ran away in the night when it saw the burglar.

The Alliance made its reputation by insisting that only compatible equipment could carry the WiFi logo. It organised tests where compatbility was assured, and issued accreditation, and the result was a wireless industry where wireless adapters became commodities, and you could pick the cheapest.

This didn't suit the manufacturers. They like the idea of "winning big" - of being the guy who sets the standard. They want to be first out the door, forcing everybody else to follow in their footsteps, and maybe, even, pay a licence fee for doing so. They hate commoditisation; so why they praise the standard in public, they try their hardest to undermine it and create their own statute in the background.

If this standard is rescued, it will take time; and by the time it is sorted out, many dismayed buyers will find themselves with obsolete gear. The WiFi Alliance turned out to be helpless to intervene, and its credibility will be hard to re-establish.


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