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    Duelling wireless networking standards stalling tech gains

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2006 First published in Business in Vancouver May 23-29, 2006; issue 865

    High Tech Office column; 

    Standards are wonderful things. Because of technology standards, you can be sure that the lightbulb you buy will screw into the socket in your home and that you’ll be able to connect that new USB printer into your computer. But compliance to standards can make it harder for manufacturers to make their products stand out from the pack.

    The development of wireless networking since about 1999 has seen a continuing back and forth between an evolving series of standards (various flavours of IEEE 802.11) and companies pushing the envelope to be first to market with faster, but non-standard networking protocols.

    First with widespread acceptance was 802.11b, promising connection speeds of up to 11 Mbps followed by faster (but less common) 802.11a and today’s standard 802.11g, promising speeds up to about 54 Mbps.

    For a while, though, most of the major manufacturers have offered models promising still higher speeds, but with a catch: the higher speeds are available only if you have compatible cards and base stations. Compatible means matching models from the same manufacturer. Mix brands or models and you drop back to standard 802.11g.

    Latest not-yet-standard is 802.11n. This next generation wireless technology promises speeds up to 600 Mbps and greater range. The catch is that this standard has not yet been formalized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

    The lack of a standard isn’t stopping the various WiFi manufacturers. Most of the brand names are now advertising “pre-802.11n” hardware, suggesting the manufacturers’ hopes that their hardware will be compatible with the eventual standard.

    Early tests, however, suggest that they’re not doing so well. Once again, hardware from one manufacturer will generally work as promised – as long as you’re connecting with gear from the same product line. Start to mix and match pre-802.11n gear from different manufacturers and you’re likely to discover that a pre-standard is like no standard at all; expect to get connections at standardized 802.11g speeds.

    And on May 2, the committee working on the 802.11n standard failed to gain enough consensus for its Draft 1.0 proposal to be adopted, making it less likely that the current pre-standard hardware will be compatible with the final version.”

    In April, Craig Mathias of Massachusetts-based Farpoint Group published results of tests of several manufacturers’ so-called Draft N WiFi offerings.

    He was disappointed.

    “We couldn’t even get the equipment to talk to each other.”

    The Draft N models tested didn’t appear to offer speed or range improvements over the standardized 802.11g models. Mathias concluded: “The more established products just blew them away…. It’s like we’re going backward.” Industry publication eWeek also reported underwhelming test results. The final 802.11n specification is expected late this year or early in 2007. Until then, it may be best to just say no to so-called “Pre-N” or “Draft N” WiFi hardware, and until then widely-available (and standard) 802.11g models are the best bet for performance and compatibility.

    For most users, it’s may all be a lot of fuss over nothing. Even a broadband Internet connection tops out around six Mbps, well within the capability of first-generation 802.11b. The faster speeds delivered by later-generation gear may be useful in transferring files over a local area network, but they’re not going to improve online performance.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan