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Thinking about upgrading to 11n now? Think Twice

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Thinking about upgrading to 11n now? Think Twice

Westlake Village (CA) – The recent love-fest of draft-802.11n chipset announcements by Atheros, Broadcom and Marvell would have you believe that it’s a no-brainer that products that will be hitting the shelves this summer will be just a firmware flash away from being turned into full 802.11n products once the standard is released. Just don’t count on it that it actually will happen.

It has taken several months for the industry to agree on a draft proposal for next-generation Wi-Fi, dubbed 802.11n. Draft 1.0 is expected to need about one year and several revisions before it is ratified as a standard that may offer upwards of 100 Mbps application-level bandwidth. But don’t expect Wi-Fi hardware manufacturers to wait for the standard to begin shipping: draft-802.11n devices will soon begin to appear on retail shelves – without an explicit guarantee that this first generation of “11n” devices will be compatible with the final standard.

The most bullish on upgradeability is Broadcom, which, if you remember, drove the industry toward 802.11g when it orchestrated the introduction of consumer networking products based on its draft 802.11g chipset back at the Fall 2002 Comdex show. Since that gamble paid off handsomely for Broadcom on 11g, they’re trying for a repeat performance on 11n, where the stakes may be even higher, given that the company hasn’t even yet fielded a product using MIMO technology.

During Broadcom’s January 20th conference call that discussed their draft 11n product announcements, Michael Hurlston, General Manager of Broadcom’s Home and Wireless Networking Business Unit, essentially said that upgradeability was a piece of cake. According to Hurlston, the company “certainly expects to see products from [its] customers on the shelf in the summertime.” He continued: “And we expect those products to be software upgradeable to the final standard. We’ve built in enough programmability in our chipset that those nuances (in the spec) should be handled by what’s inside the chipset.”

However, this level of confidence appears to be unusually high given the complexity of 802.11n as well as the fact that the spec has just been accepted by the IEEE task group, and the current consensus that a final spec is about a year away. Examples of problems yet to be solved were brought to light by the recent test of Netgear’s RangeMax 240 products by Tom’s Networking. Both interference problems with neighboring 802.11b/g wireless LANs and inefficient throughput sharing in WLANs with both RangeMax 240 and standard 802.11g clients were found. Although Airgo has not claimed that its third-generation True MIMO chipset used in the Netgear product is compliant with the just-born 802.11n draft, the problems found are representitive of those that will need to be solved by the time the spec is finalized.

Tom’s Networking decided to find out just how confident draft 802.11n chipset vendors are and asked each vendor whether they already are guaranteeing that draft 802.11n products using their technology will be compliant with the final, released 802.11n spec.

Bill Bunch, Director of Marketing for Broadcom WLAN products, softened Hurlston’s original statement when we approached and framed his answer in standard marketing phrases, but avoided the word “guarantee”. “Intensi-fi meets all mandatory elements of the draft 802.11n specification and includes significant programmability to ensure that future iterations of the evolving standard can be accommodated,” he said. “The 802.11n draft standard has already been through many rounds of compromise and is already further along than where the 802.11g spec was when Broadcom introduced 54g. With 802.11g, Broadcom introduced products when we were confident that the chips would be upgradeable to the final standard and in time, our strategy proved to be correct. We feel equally confident that our draft-802.11n chips will also be upgradeable to the final standard.”

Bill McFarland, chief technology officer at Atheros Communications, confirmed that his company “cannot claim guaranteed upgradeability to the final 802.11n,” because Atheros “does not control the standards-making process.” In his opinion, there are still changes to the draft possible that could prevent any wireless product based on the draft specification from complying with the final standard. But Atheros intends to apply changes to the changes “that might occur as the draft is ratified.”

In general, McFarland “feels confident that the final specification will be very close to the draft. The draft has already passed unanimously during the Joint Proposal and TGn votes. The draft has been reviewed by hundreds of individuals from more than 50 companies in this process. Finally, many companies are now beginning designs according to the draft, and they will prefer for it to remain unchanged. Although upgradeability cannot be guaranteed, we believe the above factors will result in the Atheros AR5008 being compliant with the final standard.” Mahesh Venkatraman, Senior Technical Marketing Manager of Marvell, joined Broadcom in not directly answering the question, but gets credit for brevity. “Given the way the voting went we do not expect the standard to be turned upside down. Marvell feels confident that we have enough flexibility in our chip design to meet our customers’ needs,” he said.

We did not ask Airgo for its response, since the company clearly stated its position in the “802.11n First Draft Proposal Approved” press release issued on January 19. According to Airgo, “it is debatable as to when the draft will be stable enough to begin designing firmware upgradeable chip sets. Claims that chip sets based on any early draft will be firmware upgradeable to the final 11n specification are irresponsible, and may mislead consumers who do not fully understand the IEEE process.” Airgo believes that the draft will undergo several more rounds of review and revisions before it reaches a stage that can be ratified.

Our brief survey of major Wi-Fi technology providers leaves us doubtful that the “confidence” of some companies in the upgradability of their products will actually become a reality for consumers. Despite the happy, shiny, positive spin on draft-11n product upgradeability, in the end, actions really do speak louder than words.

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