Faster Wi-Fi Proposal Passes Hurdle

Consumers are one step closer to a faster Wi-Fi standard after competing groups voted Wednesday to agree on a proposal led by Intel, Atheros and Broadcom.

As a result of a 40-0 vote (including two abstentions) the Enhanced Wireless Consortium joint proposal will be heard by the IEEE standards-making body when it convenes next week in Hawaii.

Wireless groups see the 802.11n Wi-Fi standard as breathing new life into Wi-Fi, offering consumers increased speed, fewer “dead spots” and use by video and phones, as well as Internet access. For example, 802.11n Wi-Fi is expected to up to 4-5 times faster than 802.11g, and upwards of 50 times faster than 802.11b, the most commonly used protocol today.

The EWC was formed in 2005 by a splinter group of Wi-Fi companies dissatisfied with the lack of progress toward a new specification.

Atheros, a backer of the plan, said the agreement demonstrates extraordinary support for the EWC-based proposal. “Adoption of this specification is a huge step forward,” said Bill McFarland, Atheros chief technical officer.

“This is the hardest hurdle that needs to be passed,” said McFarland. While McFarland refused to name the companies that abstained from voting, he said Airgo Networks, the leading developer of MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output) technology likely to be used in 802.11n (define), voted for the agreement. Airgo recently announced it has shipped more than 5 million of its True MIMO chipsets used in equipment from Netgear, Linksys, Buffalo and Belkin.

“We’re really excited,” said Dave Borison, Airgo’s Director of Product Marketing. “There is now a first draft and we’re back in the IEEE.” Airgo had objected to the EWC working outside the traditional standards process.

How did Atheros, Intel and others convince the holdouts to join the EWC camp? EWC worked with companies to include their interests in the final proposal, according to McFarland. The group ensured issues touching on 802.11n in phones and in consumer electronics were made part of the proposal.

In December, the Joint Proposal team, composed of members of the TGnSync, WWise and MITMOT, a Motorola and Mitsubishi group came to near agreement.

While Wednesday’s vote concludes a rocky portion of the process, work still lies ahead before a Wi-Fi standard is translated into products on retailers’ shelves. Friday marks the start of a two-day face-to-face session of the Joint Proposal Team.

The Joint Proposal meeting will be used to iron-out any differences remaining. Any last-minute alternative to the EWC proposal won’t derail yesterday’s agreement, assures McFarland.

After next week’s potential vote by the IEEE, any resulting document must be circulated for comment before a final standard is approved. A standard is not likely until the end of 2006, said McFarland.

Companies seeking to cash in on the popularity of a faster Wi-Fi won’t wait until the end of this year to ship products. We’ll likely see products based on a draft standard of 802.11n by summer, according to the Atheros executive. Launching products based on draft standards has become a common technique in the wireless industry. Before 802.11g was officially approved, several companies were offering 802.11g products based on the draft version.

Ultimately, 802.11n is seen as widening the interest in Wi-Fi throughout the home. McFarland envisions the faster Wi-Fi standard launching high-definition video, wireless VoIP and further supplanting wired connections.

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