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A Mixed Week for Wireless Standards

Written by Robert Poe
Monday, 23 January 2006

Wireless standards had a mixed week last week at the IEEE bimonthly meeting in Hawaii. On Thursday, the organization confirmed the draft 802.11n, or so-called next-generation Wi-Fi, standard. The same day, an IEEE group recommended that it abandon efforts to standardize ultra-wideband (UWB) wireless technology.

The 802.11n version the organization approved is based on a technical approach that a group of heavy hitters called the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC) proposed in October to break a stalemate in the standards process.

The group's proposed approach, dubbed TGn Snyc, had the backing of companies like Atheros Communications, Cisco, Intel, Marvell Semiconductor, Mitsubishi Electric, Nortel, Panasonic (Matsushita), Qualcomm, Philips, Samsung, and Sony. Supporters of the losing approach, called WWiSE, included Airgo Networks, Broadcom, Conexant, France Telecom, Motorola, Nokia, NTT, and Texas Instruments.

The EWC's winning approach would deliver up to 600 Mbps of raw data throughput via multiple-input multiple output (MIMO) systems using four transmitting and receiving antennas. The draft version of 802.11n must still go through ratification process to become an official standard, but the confirmation opened the way for manufacturers to deliver products they could claim conformed to the standard.

Winning had its advantages. The day after the confirmation, Marvell claimed to be the first to ship a product based on the newly confirmed spec, saying that a chipset customers had been working with for several months was fully 802.11n compliant.

The breakdown of the UWB standardization process resulted from the organization's inability to reconcile competing technologies promoted by the UWB Forum and the WiMedia Alliance. Motorola semiconductor spinoff Freescale Semiconductor supported the UWB Forum, which is pushing a technology called direct sequence UWB. Intel, Samsung, and Texas Instruments were key players in the WiMedia Alliance, which is promoting multiband orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing UWB.

The breakdown came when the IEEE's 802.15.3a task group (T3GA) voted to dissolve itself and abandon the UWB standardization effort it had launched in January 2003. Shortly thereafter, the two groups issued a joint statement saying they were committed to the commercialization of the technology.

They added, however, that while they appreciated the T3GA's efforts, "a more prudent course of action is necessary to allow the market to move forward with the commercialization of multiple UWB technologies."

The failure to reach a standards compromise could hinder the growth of UWB, which is one of the contenders for distributing high-bandwidth entertainment content around the home. That in turn could affect the fate of a number of other technologies including power-line broadband and multimedia over coaxial cable (MoCA). (See Siemens Joins Multimedia Over Coax Alliance.) Wi-Fi, and particularly the high-bandwidth version that 802.11n represents, is also a contender, and will become more so following last week's events.