Wi-Fi5, We Hardly Knew Ye

Remember when we told you that you could call 802.11a products Wi-Fi5, just as we usually call 802.11b products Wi-Fi? Forget we said that. Wi-Fi5 is out.

When 802.11a products certified by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA) start coming out in September (802.11a products have been shipping since late 2001, but none have been WECA certified yet), they too will be branded as “Wi-Fi Certified” — just like the 802.11b products.

On top of all this, WECA will be changing its name. To better reflect the branding, they will become the Wi-Fi Alliance.

The naming changes for product branding and the group are a matter of timing, says WECA chairman Dennis Eaton. The term “Wireless Ethernet” has gone by the wayside as it wasn’t chosen for the branding of certified products.

“The history is strange,” says Eaton. “The organization came about before the brand. In hindsight it would have been good to be Wi-Fi all from beginning.

“The different name has caused some confusion in the past.”

The name change for the group is one thing, but the dropping of Wi-Fi5 as a brand is another matter. Some analysts have expressed concern about possible confusion for customers who may buy separate Wi-Fi products only to find one is 802.11a, the other is 802.11b. Despite the branding as “Wi-Fi Certified,” they don’t work together.

Eaton said focus groups of consumers, enterprise, and small businesses saw an even bigger potential problem. Most participants saw Wi-Fi5 as confusing because they expected it to be not only “bigger, better, faster” than Wi-Fi, they expected it to be backwards compatible.

“[It’s] similar to USB 2.0 — it should work with 1.0,” says Eaton. “In the case of USB that’s true, but not with Wi-Fi5, but that’s what they assumed, even if the logo was different.”

In Wi-Fi5, the 5 signified the 5GHz radio band used by 802.11a, compared to 2.4GHz-based 802.11b.

Eaton says the designs for new labeling for all Wi-Fi Certified products should address compatibility concerns, for more than just different kinds of radio standards. The new Wi-Fi logo label will also feature a checklist specifying whether the product is certified for certain features. Each label will be exactly the same on every box, only specific line items will be checked off if supported.

Top most among the check list will likely be the physical standard of 802.11a or b, but Eaton expects lines will exist for dual-band products, Quality of Service support, Security (perhaps TKIP or AES will each get a line), transmit power control, and potentially others.

The specifics are still being worked out and won’t be formalized for at least a month.

“I would expect that you’ll see the first logos show up in September,” says Eaton. “We told the membership this will be mandatory for 802.11a certified products. With b products, there will likely be an 18 month transition period. Some will show up soon but they’ll have time to change packaging.”

The new logo label used on packages will also include a product’s individual certification ID, which can be used by customers to look up specific product information at the Wi-Fi.org site or at the product vendor’s site.

Standardizing everything to the Wi-Fi name was not done in a vacuum, says Eaton. “We have a committee of members, any one who wants to participate can, and this committee came up with the branding strategy. It’s been going on for six to nine months and they’ll also decide on the new label.”

WECA (sorry, Wi-Fi Alliance) has actively encouraged the use of the term Wi-Fi as a generic for 802.11b. Where does that leave 802.11a? Many, include 802.11 Planet, had started to call it Wi-Fi5 on a semi-regular basis to differentiate it from its slower sibling. However, WECA probably won’t miss it and the potential confusion.

“We won’t use Wi-Fi5,” says Eaton, “but it’s been out there a while and some people may continue to use it… but we won’t encourage it.”

Eric Griffith is the managing editor of 802.11 Planet.

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