wireless networking standards stalling tech gains
Alan Zisman (c) 2006 First published in Business
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
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
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
Massachusetts-based Farpoint Group
published results of tests of several manufacturers’ so-called Draft N
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
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