The next generation Wi-Fi standard will be based on MIMO (multiple input multiple output). Unfortunately, the standard itself has suffered from MIMO, as multiple inputs to the IEEE have nearly split the standard.
Now, an Intel-backed group has announced a fast wireless specification, which it claims could create a unified Wi-Fi standard. But other members of the standards process are crying foul.
"We have a complete specification, that meets the [IEEE] mandate," said Bill Bunch, director of product management at Broadcom, and a member of the newly-formed the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC). The specification uses MIMO (multiple input-multiple output) technology to make Wi-Fi networks go faster and further.
Other players object that the EWC specification is not complete, that it omits key product categories, makes arbitrary technology choices, and represents big silicon vendors trying to bully other players into following Intel's lead. "What we have here is a group of silicon companies who want to try to force the standard to be what they are already trying to build," said Greg Raleigh, chief executive of Airgo, the leading vendor of MIMO technology. "We don't think that's in the interest of standards process or consumer."
What happened to the joint proposal?"This is the first example of a merged proposal between TGnSync and WWISE," says Bunch. The IEEE's 802.11n fast Wi-Fi standards work in May when the TGnSync group (including Intel) and the WWISE group (including Broadcom and Airgo) both failed to get the necessary 75 percent majority, as did Motorola which backed a third proposal.
However, it is not the merged proposal we expected, and has not emerged the way the IEEE envisaged, out of the deliberations of the "joint proposal" (JP) group formed from members of the 802.11n task group. Instead, the proposal was created by a small group of silicon vendors, and circulated individually to members of the JP group.
"The IEEE took all members [of the .11n task group], threw them all in a little room and told them not to come out until they had a standard," said EWC member Bill McFarland, chief technical officer of Atheros.
The way EWC tells it, the IEEE's joint proposal group got bogged down, and missed its deadlines, until EWC arrived to pull it out of the mire. "The JP's time to a first draft has moved out to January," said Bunch. "We have a specification that could become a draft in November.
Airgo refutes this, saying it's EWC that disrupted the IEEE's official process: "The JP's work was delayed due to the disruption the [EWC] group caused when they introduced this concept in private at the July meeting," said Raleigh.
Members of the joint proposal group were briefed individually on the Intel-backed EWC proposal, weakening the effort for a consensus discussion within the official group, says Raleigh.
Could EWC become the draft standard?EWC will make its complete specification public during the next week, and submit it to the next JP meeting on 18 October, said Bunch. If the JP accepts it, it could become the first draft of a standard by November.
However, its acceptance is not certain: "Though we think it is encouraging that the EWC will submit its specification to the JP like every other member of the JP does, that submission will not automatically lead to acceptance and forwarding to IEEE 802.11n," pointed out Nico van Waes, the senior research engineer at Nokia responsible for 11n standardisation. "Like every other submission, it will be discussed piecewise on its merits, extensively modified to meet any perceived shortcomings if necessary and voted on for addition to the JP specification which will be forwarded to 802.11n.
If JP rejects it, EWC plans to submit the specification to the next IEEE standards meeting, said Bunch. "We are a set of companies that are incredibly focussed on getting something done. We expect others to get on board with the same basic concept." There are strong hints that if EWC failed to get its proposals ratified, it would nevertheless continue to promote them as an industry consortium.
"The JP was not sanctioned to endorse a specification developed in private by a handful of silicon companies," said Raleigh. "The difference is the fact that [EWC] agreed to create silicon, and they've said they will create silicon and push that silicon interoperability specification regardless of what happens in 802.11n."
Asked why the EWC members could not just work inside the JP, Bunch said "EWC is a more open group than JP." It includes input from companies, such as Apple, that don't have an opportunity to contribute to the joint proposal. Others outside the group have suggested that the only real input was from Broadcom and Intel.
Standards have often been accelerated by industry groups working outside formal groups like the IEEE, argued Bunch: "When fast Ethernet was being developed, there was the Fast Ethernet Alliance," he said. "This could be the missing element, to get a proposal on the table that will have the 75 percent majority which has so far eluded us."
What's wrong with EWC's technology?The EWC specification to be published this week was circulated to all the 802.11n task group members in July, and some task group members have objections.
"It does not include all the elements that are in the joint proposals group that are of value to consumers," said Raleigh. "It does not adequately support handsets or consumer devices, and makes some arbitrary hardware choices that were made by the silicon vendors in private, well before they shared the specification with the open standards process." The proposal also injects some ideas that were in neither camp, said Raleigh. .
"In our view, the EWC specification doesn't contain sufficient support for handhelds," agreed Nokia's van Waes. "This should be evident by the lack of any substantial handheld manufacturers in the EWC."
What happens next?Although the WWiSE and TGnSync are dormant now, both will to endorse the eventual compromise specification before it is sent to 802.11n.
"The companies have now aligned themselves along more natural lines of market-segment: PC, consumer electronics and handhelds," van Waes. "None of these segments has the overwhelming control of the JP required to ram only its own interest through, and hence somewhat naturally a specification has to be found with which all three market segments are satisfied."
EWC appears to represent the PC segment, and there are less public groups representing other interests, that cross the old group boundaries. "Some of the sub-groups have more public names than others," said an anonymous administrator for TGnSync, " and the EWC is one such group. There are others, but they are in some sense a label for a faction that is looking to support one idea or another. Not everyone is happy with this group becoming public, but then no one is happy with everyone all the time."
On one level, EWC could simply be a spoiler. Intel and its cronies have attempted to undermine Airgo's market lead, with a big technology announcement for products not yet available. In the process, they have cast doubt on the results of the standards process.
Bunch denies this, of course, and says it's not about MIMO at all: "What we're specifying is not MIMO, but a complete set of technologies for next generation wireless."
And Airgo denies that any souring of the MIMO-based 802.11n standard will hurt it. "We are shipping third generation chipsets now, that meet the PAR [basic requirements] for 802.11n," said Raleigh. "What we are working on is an exact interopability format for that technology, and a set of consumer features. We stopped arguing over basic technology over a year ago. Airgo's position is in support of an open standard."
With its big backers, EWC looks like a powerful steamroller, but there are signs of opposition - and existing and future MIMO markets that EWC looks like not addressing well enough.
The next few weeks look like an interesting ride for the 802.11n standard.