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Is New Standard for 802.11 Out of Luck?

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Task Group assigned to explore the next-generation standard for 802.11 has a difficult choice to make in the next day or so.

For months, Task Group "G" has been trying to come to terms on a modulation scheme that would allow 802.11 wireless LAN (WLAN) hardware to transmit data at speeds approaching a "wired" Ethernet. But in its most recent vote Wednesday morning, the group again failed to agree on a proposal backed by Irvine, Calif.-based Intersil. Now there is a motion before the entire IEEE to consider scrapping months of hard work altogether.

The news is proving to have a negative effect on Intersil's stock, which rose ahead of this week's IEEE regularly scheduled meeting in Austin, Texas. "If the solution does not receive the 75-percent approval, we believe the market could react negatively on a temporary basis," said Ross Seymore, analyst at Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown.

The G group voted 55-45 in favor of establishing a new standard, which is based on Intersil's Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) -- a modulation scheme favored by the Federal Communications Commission because it uses less of the precious eletro-magnetic spectrum. According to the IEEE's bylaws, a proposal needs to reach the 75-percent support threshold before it can move forward for the entire 500-member working group to consider.

After this week's meetings are adjourned, the IEEE isn't scheduled to reconvene until January. By then, however, other forms of 802.11 are expected to begin commercial rollout. Several vendors have already announced delivery by the first quarter. And with players like Cisco Systems and Intel buzzing about WLANs at this week's Comdex show in Las Vegas, the loser through all of this could be the all-important end-user.

"The adoption of any new technology is at least partially based upon consumers' ability to discern a clear technology roadmap," Alex. Brown's Seymore wrote in his research notes.

A brief history
The first 802.11 standard of the mid-1990s gave birth to the current 802.11b standard, which was approved by the IEEE in 1999. As outlined by the 802.11b specification, chip sets would use a modulation scheme known as Complementary Code Keying (CCK) to transmit data signals at 11 megabits-per-second (Mbps) through an unlicensed portion of the spectrum found at about 2.4GHz. Considered revolutionary at the time (and by some measures...even still today), 802.11b gave way to a new generation of products that allowed an Ethernet connection to finally break free of wires but its speed was still only one-tenth that of its wired brethren.

In order to enhance the standard, the IEEE's overall Working Group that oversaw the development of 802.11 assigned individual tasks to several specialty groups -- each with the goal of further advancing the technology. The mission of 802.11g was to boost the data transmission to the so-called "turbo" rates of 54 Mbps while still maintaining interoperability with earlier specs. This way, consumers (and enterprise users, vendors, investors and just about everyone else) who bet on earlier versions of the technology would know how the market would eventually evolve.

But the road to the next generation was bumpy along the way. Task Group G (which totals about 175 people) broke off into two separate camps after May when a proposal by Texas Instruments was taken out of consideration. No words could have summed up how TI officials must have felt. They had been working for years on that proposal. They made sure their modulation scheme, known as Packet Binary Convolution Coding (PBCC), became an accepted alternative to the original CCK schema in order to ensure full backward-capability. In fact, they even invested $300 million to acquire a company (Alantro Communications) that helped develop PBCC.

Since then, TI officials has been lobbying their Intersil counterparts long and hard to include elements of its proprietary technology into a standard that would be called 802.11g. But Intersil has repeatedly (and successfully) argued that such a hybrid product wouldn't be practical in its design and deployment.

Yet, Intersil was unfortunately left with its own political stalemate when it came to its proposal. It wouldn't lose and yet it couldn't win. The proposal couldn't muster up the mandatory 75-percent support threshold. G Task Group Chairman Matthew B. Shoemake, Ph.D. (who is an Alantro official) was unsure how to proceed. Intersil argued the only thing to do was to keep compromising until the threshold could be met. But by the time the procedural debate was resolved, the vote was again delayed due to the events of Sept. 11.

The 802.11a Train
And all the while during the months of bipartisan rhethoric, other companies forged ahead with another derivation of the wireless technology. When the original 802.11b specification was approved in 1999, the IEEE concurrently approved the specs for 802.11a. These chip sets are designed to use the OFDM schema to transmit data at 54 Mbps through a separate portion of spectrum (located somewhere in the 5GHz range).

802.11a is currently only licensed for usage in North America as opposed to 802.11b which is accepted throughout Europe and Asia as well. But the main hurdle facing the end-user is that the two specs -- 802.11b and 802.11a -- were never meant to interoperate. Still, that hasn't stopped household names like Intel and 3Com from already announcing their support of 802.11a.

Thanks to the hard work of companies like Sunnyvale, Calif.-based start-up Atheros Communications, gear makers have reference design that can be used as the basis for next-generation products.

Meanwhile, TI has also forged ahead with its own turbo-rate WLAN technology, which already has the support of big name vendors such as Linksys. Although no official announcement has been made, Linksys is quietly showing WLAN hardware at this week's Comdex show based on TI's ACX 100 technology, which could be on the market by the beginning of 2002.

Still, Seymore pointed out that all is not lost for Intersil.

"First, by rejecting Intersil's 802.11g solution, the IEEE board delays the introduction of a standard to compete with the 802.11b standard, where Intersil currently enjoys a dominant position. This could lengthen the time for 802.11b to penetrate the WLAN market before 802.11a or any other competing standard enters the market.

"Second, the lack of an 802.11g standard may actually improve WLAN market clarity...The differences between 802.11a and 802.11b already create sufficient confusion for potential WLAN buyers, and we believe the adoption of a third standard could further exacerbate this confusion, thereby slowing overall WLAN adoption rates."