RealTime IT News

IEEE Sets Next-generation 802.11 Standard

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Task Group assigned to explore the next-generation wireless Ethernet standard has finally ended months of bickering and late Thursday agreed on terms for a new wireless standard called 802.11g.

The consensus represents an eleventh-hour save for the Intersil-backed proposal. 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 after failing to do so earlier this week, the IEEE even considered scrapping the proposed standard (not to mention months of hard work) altogether.

"This is a huge win for the wireless industry for several reasons," said Gregory Williams, president and CEO of Intersil Corp. "We feel that the mandatory elements of the proposed standard meet all the needs of the market," Williams commented. "Intersil will leverage our proven experience in radio reference designs, software and complete chip sets to deliver an exciting next generation of products fully backward compatible to existing 11 Mbps radios worldwide."

Irvine, Calif.-based Intersil, already a leading provider of chip sets for the nascent 802.11b market, will develop and market a new chip set that meets the proposed 802.11g standard by the second quarter of 2002.

The current 802.11b standard was approved by the IEEE in 1999. Based on that 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 to 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 when the original 802.11b specification was approved, 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, several vendors from start-ups like Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Atheros Communications to household names like Intel and 3Com are already announcing their support of 802.11a and expect to ship products about the same time as Intersil.

Unlike 802.11a, the newly ratified standard is backwards-compatible with the existing 802.11b standard. And that is a huge boon to the industry considering the millions of dollars that's already been invested networks such as those set up by MobileStar Networks in Starbucks locations around the country.

However, do not confuse interoperability with compatibility. A laptop user on a .11b loop can still share files and print through a .11a-looped desktop so long as the network hardware (namely the routers, switches, hubs) allow for it. Just consider .11a and .11b two distinct forms of networking, much like HomePNA or the rejuvenated powerline networking. If you have a HomePNA (phone lines) network, you can still communicate through a wireless network so long as you are equipped with the proper hardware. It's compatible...just different.

In fact, many enterprise access points (APs) are being designed and manufactured with multiple internal slots for network administrators to simply plug in .11a cards (or even, say, a Bluetooth module) much like they were plugging in a PCI-Ethernet card into a desktop. SMC Networks, for example, offers one such cardbus adapter.

Still, if 802.11a does become the dominant format used in enterprise WLANs, then individuals that currently own Wi-Fi equipment (PCMCIA cards, APs, etc.) are left at the mercy of the vendor, who at their whim can include compatibility as a feature or not. If 802.11g becomes the standard, compatibility is ensured.

Despite the recent introduction of higher-speed 802.11a products, the outlook for 802.11b continues to be strong and we forecast that the market will grow 35 percent in 2002, according to Dell'Oro Group.

The 802.11g standard now must go before the IEEE's entire 802.11 Working Group, which is expected to pass the compromise specification some time next year.