Products based on fast Wi-Fi technologies are set to take off - but could they end up hobbled by the workings of the Draft N branding programme?

A boom in fast Wi-Fi

Most analysts have predicted that most big businesses and their IT suppliers won't adopt the 200 Mbit/s 802.11n fast Wi-Fi standard, currently only a draft, until the network standards body, the IEEE, puts the final finishing touches to the standard, sometime during 2008.

In fact, the enterprise could move faster than that. The standard has stabilised, consumers have been buying the Draft N products which are already available, and a branding programme is on its way which should ensure compatibility. From June, shops will have stacks of products bearing a brand from the Wi-Fi Alliance, that proves they comply with a draft of the standard, and vendors are claiming that their existing products will be able to upgrade to the new specification. If consumers happily adopt it, business will follow quickly, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance, creator of the branding programme.

"Several business users have said to me that, once the Alliance puts its stamp of approval on the products, that makes it trustworthy" says Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the Alliance. Business equipment makers will seize the opportunity "There will be companies offering Draft N kit to the enterprise this year."

The Alliance's branding programme will start in June - but at this stage it doesn't even have a name - Hanzlik points out that you can't conform or brand to a draft IEEE specification.

Whatever it will be called, it's on track. If Draft 2.0 passes its ballot, the brand will be based on that, if not, "we believe we have been doing enough interoperability testing to deliver a specification test plan."

"It's a key inflection point for the industry, that will redefine people's expectations for what they can do with a wireless LAN," he says. "A lot of people believe that 802.11n based technology will deliver whole home coverage, quite reliably, at speeds that allow you to do a lot more than just surf the internet and do email."

Upgrading your products

Although it was widely feared that last year's Draft N products would muddy the water, vendors are starting to say that they will upgrade smoothly to Draft 2.0, and even to the final standard, which is expected to differ only slightly.

"All our hardware in the field is upgradable to draft 2.0." says Mike Hurlston vice president and general manager of silicon maker Broadcom's wireless LAN product division. "With a firmware load, we will be able to make any product we've shipped comply." This firmware will start to appear as soon as March, he says.

There's a downside to the upgrade - it may actually make the wireless part of the device go more slowly, warns Hurlston. 802.11n allows 40Mhz-wide channels, but in the 2.4GHz range where all current Draft N products operate, this uses two of the three available non-overlapping channels, and would interfere with 802.11b/g networks. The emerging standard requires a device to fall back to narrower, 20MHz, channels when it detects other Wi-Fi devices.

Last year, there was a fear that Draft N products would muddy the waters, but Hanzlik believes they have actually helped: "There has been a level of technology stability there, that we typically don't see before the launch of a new programme," he says. "There are a lot of companies that have had a year of experience working with the essence of the new technology."

He does warn that the Alliance is not involved in certifying upgradeability: "It is always safest to have consumers check with the manufacturer directly."

A two-speed standard?

But there's one factor where the branding may not help. Draft N products so far have only used the 2.4GHz band, but the specification allows for dual-band products, that use both 2.4GHz and 5GHz, a largely empty band where the rarely-used 802.11a standard operates.

Dual-band products won't have a faster top speed (the speed is part of the 802.11n standard) but they will give a much better performance in the real world, as there are more channels available in the 5GHz band and much fewer devices and interference. Also, crucially, 802.11n will use 40MHz channels in the 5GHz band and won't have to choke them back.

Hurlston hopes that won't make much difference: "Even in 20M wide channels, you will get performance in the region of 100 Mbit/s" he says, pointing out that until products have Gigabit Ethernet connections, the 10/100 Ethernet switch will be the bottleneck for most people (though not, presumably for people at a greater distance from the access point, where the speed is less).

There is a danger that the Alliance's brand will not distinguish clearly between single-band and dual-band products, which could lead to some disappointed users. The products certificate will say which kind of product it is, but that may not be visible in the brand on the box, says Hanzlik: "There's a limited amount of space we have to work with there."

To know whether they are getting single-band or dual-band, users will have to download the certificate. If they don't do this, they may end up with single-band products, whose performance will degrade when other Wi-Fi signals are around, or with a mixture of both, which will give them the lowest common denominator.

A single-band access point will drag a dual-band laptop down to single-band performance, while a dual-band access point should be able to support clients in both bands simultaneously, giving it a much greater total throughput, as well as a better speed for the dual-band client.

If this confuses consumers, there's a danger that the brand may even bend the market out of shape, effectively dooming the dual-band devices. Buffalo's dual-band device is expected to cost $300, which will be significantly more than the price of single-band devices. If the brand doesn't help users tell a dual-band device from a single-band one, they may just buy the cheaper one.

Even without the branding issue, Cnet blogger George Ou believes the price differential alone will be enough to consign dual-band devices to the same death as 5GHz 802.11a devices. He thinks 802.11n has already become a 2.4Ghz-only standard, so users will miss out on the speed benefits 5Ghz could bring.

If Ou is right, a brand that doesn't distinguish the two will only accelerate that process.