Testing of faster Wi-Fi standard to start in June

Final 802.11n ratification pushed back to March 2009

The Wi-Fi Alliance will begin interoperability testing in June to certify products that meet the faster 802.11n Draft 2.0 standard for wireless LANs.

That certification process comes 21 months in advance of the final ratification of the 802.11n standard, which is now set for March 2009, a full five months later than an earlier deadline projected by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc.) standards body.

Compared with the current generation of Wi-Fi, the 802.11n standard promises higher speeds and longer range as well as better performance for streaming media.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, a trade group that represents 300 Wi-Fi product vendors, also announced today a new logo that will be affixed to the products that it certifies after the testing process. The logo will feature the word "Draft" next to the letter "n" and the words "Wi-Fi certified."

News of the testing and the logo was announced shortly after the IEEE 802.11n working group said that the final ratification would be pushed back to March 2009. Previously, final ratification had been set for October 2008. IEEE officials could not be reached for comment on the change.

Network managers at many large companies have expressed concern in the past year about moving to a product that is not based on the final ratification of the standard, although standards often take years for final approval.

Analysts were divided on whether a business should wait for a final ratification or move forward with a Draft 2.0-certified product later this year, especially since it will be nearly two years before the final ratification comes. However, a Wi-Fi Alliance official said that with final ratification even further away, Draft 2.0 certification becomes more important.

"There's been plenty of discussion around this, with speculation that enterprises would wait for final ratification, but we're seeing that attitude changing, and starting to see test and budgeting within companies" for Draft 2.0 products, said Karen Hanley, senior director of marketing at the Wi-Fi Alliance. She would not name any companies planning tests, however.

"Some would say that 2.0 is there, but we don't really know, and in order to balance two extremes, we've decided to proceed with testing of 2.0 to enable a higher confidence level, both for home users and the enterprise," she said.

"With the final ratification now set for the first quarter of '09, certification testing for Draft 2.0 is even more important," since it will be longer than expected for customers to get fully ratified products, Hanley added.

Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group, said that the results of interoperability testing of Draft 2.0 products indicate that business users should be open to buying products that are Draft 2.0-certified, because they will gain what could be four times the real-world throughput of existing 802.11g products.

The key to the Wi-Fi certification process is that it represents a real test of interoperability and backward compatibility with a, b, and g products, Mathias said. "End users should feel very comfortable with Draft 2.0-certified products," he said. "No one should fear proceeding."

Mathias said he expects many N-based products to be on display at the Interop trade show next week, with Draft 2.0 products available by the end of the year.

The final ratification will be a document with corrections and minor changes over 2.0, Mathias predicted. He said he expects that interoperability will be "highly variable" among products from various vendors and with older a, b or g technology, with real-world throughput ranging from 40Mbit/sec. to 130Mbit/sec.

Two other analysts were more concerned with large companies deploying Draft 2.0-certified products. Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner, said that large businesses should stay with their a/b/g equipment until the IEEE formally ratifies the full specification. He said it will be "dangerous" to deploy Draft 2.0 because it is "a very different technology with different propagation characteristics and layout challenges." He said he is publishing a more extensive explanation in about a month.

Another analyst, Paul DeBeasi at Burton Group, predicted "very slow adoption" of Draft 2.0-certified products. "For the conservative enterprise users, what this is means is that, practically, they will not start buying 'n' equipment until 2009." But he said some vendors will offer price cuts and features that will make Draft 2.0 products hard to resist.

"If you're an enterprise and want faster performance, you can get pre-n certified products that will interoperate," DeBeasi said. "The risk that it will not be software-upgradable later is small. It will require loading in new software when the full standard comes out."

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