802.11n: Is there an end to the saga?

After many years of discussion and debate, the 802.11n standard still awaits final approval. What is going on and why is ratification taking so long?

Yet earlier problems were nothing compared to the situation that the marketplace was facing next, as the IEEE's wireless working group pressed on with its plans for the next generation of technology.

In principle, the proposals for 802.11n seem both logical and thought-through. By adding multiple antennae for receiving and sending, and a wider 40MHz bandwidth channel, the 802.11n standard in principle offers both faster speeds and a broader range. It works across the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency ranges, and was first put forward by IEEE's working group in 2003 as the next step up from 802.11g. And yet, for the past five years and counting, it's been deliberating over the standard, and has yet to ratify it, amid talk of divisions among its members, which have slowed the process down even more than usual. After all, the vast membership of IEEE makes consensus difficult at the best of times, and achieving the 75 per cent of member votes required to even formalise a draft of a standard is no plain sailing.

At the time of writing, the much-delayed final decision has been moved several times. Back at the start of 2007, IT PRO reported that a further draft specification had been adopted, but that the final approval would still not follow until eighteen months down the line. Now, many believe that we'll be lucky to see a formal ratification before the end of the year, with a 2009 date being widely discussed.

Relevance

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But is IEEE ratification even relevant now? Or has the time that the organisation has taken to complete the process left it on the sidelines anyway where draft-n networking equipment is concerned? Certainly, tens of millions of draft-n standard wireless products have already been sold, and the irony for a non-ratified standard is that there's already a lot of maturity in the equipment on the market. Much of that is down to other companies and bodies taking matters into their own hands, and working hard on interoperability.

It was predictable that the big manufacturers of wireless equipment wouldn't hang around to witness a lengthy ratification programme, as the clues were there with the early 'g' standard equipment. In this case, you can't help but feel that those manufacturers made the right call, with draft-n products having been available for a couple of years already, and selling exceptionally well to a seemingly satisfied customer base.

What's more, as draft 2.0 of the 802.11n specification has now been approved by the 802.11 Working Group, the technology itself is all but locked, and has been for the past year at least. Save for a dramatic turn in the process which is highly unlikely now, manufacturers know what the final shape of the 802.11n standard is going to be. The ratification process is very much in the final stages now, to the relief of many.

Corporate customers in particular will be pleased when it's signed off. Many enterprises have been reluctant to commit to the 802.11n standard in any kind of draft form, needing the peace of mind of ratification before they look to commit significant resources to any kind of upgrade. There are still, of course, many in the enterprise sector that have invested already, aided by manufacturers promising easy upgrades to 802.11n (and those claims will surely be tested over the next year). But there's no doubt that many have held back, and continue to do so.

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