Coalitions form for new wireless war

A new fast wireless LAN standard may be in for a long and ultimately frustrating approval process

The wireless industry is just about to launch the 802.11n high-speed network standardisation process, but some participants are already anticipating an ugly fight.

With over 500 interested parties and more than 60 proposals tabled, according to reports, the initial meeting -- scheduled for 11 July in Portland, Oregon -- promises to be the first of many. While even the basic specifications for the standard remain unclear, with speeds running to 200Mbps or higher, industry politics are already taking hold.

"I'm a little bit afraid," said Liesbet Van De Parre of the Interuniversity Microelectronics Center (IMEC) in Belgium, a research centre with interests in the standard. "It's still possible for the participants to find a compromise if they want to. If they stick to their own schemes, there'll be problems. I don't see a clear outcome in the coming months."

According to industry newspaper EE Times, there are two main groups coalescing around two different proposals. One, called TGnSynch, seeks higher speed by doubling the existing radio bandwidth and using transmission techniques akin to those already in use: the other, WWiSE, is promoting existing channel widths and much more advanced coding techniques. The first group includes Atheros, Intel, Sony, Philips and Matsushita; the second, Texas Instruments, Motorola, Conexant, Broadcom and Mitsubishi.

Van De Parre said that the IMEC technologies could work with either group. "We're not going to file an official proposal, we just have a solution that fits into the idea of a faster, more dense network. A lot of the discussion has been about more range or more speed, and our technology is good for that."

IMEC's ideas centre around spatial processing and MIMO -- Multiple In, Multiple Out -- antennas, in which many stations share the same frequency but are distinguished by their physical position. "Our stuff can even work with existing technology," said Van De Parre, "and has advantages even if you fit it to just one side of the link."

However, she was pessimistic about the outcome of the standardisation process, comparing its chances unfavourably even with those of the ultrawideband 802.15.3a group -- which is still having problems more than two years after it started. "With UWB, all the main people were in one camp and it became an industry alliance," she said. "In 802.11n, the sides are very evenly balanced."

"What's good for the consumer is that systems will come onto the market with higher range and rates, with proprietary features. Whether the standardisation will get there before the market decides depends on whether the big players want it this way or not," Van De Parre said.