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Wi-Fi 802.11n Group's Interoperability Issues

The first generation of Wi-Fi equipment built around Draft 802.11n chipsets has been undergoing independent testing over the past several months. According to a new market update from ABI Research, most of the devices are receiving reviews ranging from "lukewarm" to "negative." But, the company concludes, the shortcomings of these first attempts do not spell disaster for the 802.11n standard or the chipset manufacturers.

"Disappointment in the first generation of Draft 11n chipsets is focused on issues of range, throughput and interoperability," says ABI Research senior analyst Sam Lucero. "While they connect at high speeds at close range, these devices' performance tends to fall off rapidly with increasing distance. And interoperability is neither as robust nor as seamless as it should be."

The interoperability issue is especially galling, says Lucero, because it was touted by the members of the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC) as a key benefit of their work in drafting an 802.11n standard. "The whole idea behind the EWC was that they were going to provide a clear path to interoperability, but vendors rushed into the market, and at least with this initial run of chipsets, good interoperability does not seem to have been achieved."

ABI Research's assessment is that the standards process is not as far along as some proponents would like to suggest. Much progress has been made, but more needs to be done. The last IEEE Task Group N Working Group meeting saw a number of further changes to the standard proposed. Firmware upgradeability, meaning a finalized physical chip design, seems unlikely to be achieved at this time.

How bad are the implications for the major Draft 11n chipmakers, Broadcom, Marvell, Atheros and Intel? Probably not too serious. ABI Research senior analyst Philip Solis points out, "There will be more generations of chipsets; these issues will all be worked out, more likely during 2006 than later. I think we're still on track to have the standard ratified by around mid-2007, which was the original plan."

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