The struggle for the faster wireless LAN standards has become more polarised. The second-placed contender has swallowed up Motorola's proposition, to create two power-blocs that are not expected to reach compromise before a crucial vote next month.

The IEEE's 802.11n standards makers are officially down to two contenders, following Motorola's agreement to merge its proposal with that of the World Wide Spectrum Efficiency (WWiSE) consortium. Either WWiSE, or the rival TGnSync, must get 75 percent of an IEEE vote on March 14, to become the draft standard - however, both now expect to get roughly 50 percent.

802.11n will use MIMO technology to create a standard for wireless LANs that go faster than 100Mbit/s. Currently, pre-standard MIMO products are appearing for consumers, but business use will have to wait for the 802.11n standard, expected in a year or more.

Motorola had put forth its own proposal, but it failed to receive enough votes at a meeting in January to go forward, said Jim Zyren, a spokesman for WWiSE and a voting member of the task group. Motorola got the support of about 10 percent of voters at that time, and that support could shift over to WWiSE at the next meeting. However, that would put the voting at about 45 percent for WWiSE and 55 percent for the backers of the rival TGn (Task Group N) Sync proposal, he said.

WWiSe and TGnSync have been the front runners during the standards trail so for, with Motorola a distant third.

The standards fight pits some big industry players against each other. Along with new supporter Motorola, the WWiSE camp has Broadcom, Buffalo, Texas Instruments and nine other companies, including Conexant, where Zyren is director of marketing. TGnSync has the backing of several of the industry's heavy hitters, including Cisco, Intel, Nokia and Atheros, as well as Qualcomm, which merged its own proposal into TGnSync just before the January meeting.

"The Motorola move makes the whole thing a little more interesting. It takes the stakes up another notch," said IDC analyst Abner Germanow. He expects an intense political battle between the two sides before a draft standard is locked in.

Conexant's Zyren said he believes a draft standard will be chosen by the middle of this year and, if so, the final standard should be signed off in early 2007. He also thinks Motorola's joining WWiSE helped to speed up the process.

Both proposals are based on MIMO (multiple in, multiple out) technology, which uses multiple antennas to set up more than one data stream between client and access point. Both include modes for using a channel that is 20MHz wide, like the channels used by the current 802.11g and 802.11a technologies, as well as a 40MHz channel, which will allow for much higher throughput. For example, the WWiSE proposal would enable a maximum data rate of 135Mbit/s on a 20MHz channel and as much as 540Mbit/s on a 40MHz channel.

Most individual Wi-Fi users don't need even 135Mbit/s today, Zyren and others acknowledged, but higher speed could allow for smooth distribution of video entertainment around a home. In enterprises, it could allow more users in a particular area to share a wireless LAN, according to Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney.

In the WWiSE group, Motorola hopes to contribute work it has done to make sure mobile phones and other battery-powered devices can use 802.11n technology, said Mike Pellon, vice president of standards at Motorola. "We want to see some of the ideas we have make it to the final standard," Pellon said. The company turned to the WWiSE group because it is taking a focused approach that fits well with what Motorola wants to do, he said.

Zyren said the WWiSE proposal is ready to use today and slammed the TgnSync approach as impractical. "We think there's a lot of needless complexity in the Tgn proposal," he said. "We don't feel that it's practical to implement their standard today."

TGnSync contains the big network players Cisco and Intel, as well as the Wi-Fi chip leaders Atheros and Broadcom. However, WWiSE includes the only vendor currently shipping MIMO chips, Airgo. The complexity of the TGnSync proposal could be seen in some quarters as a deliberate attempt by incumbents to delay the arrival of a MIMO standard until they can catch up with the technology.

Joe Pitarresi, a technology strategist at the radio communications lab of Intel, said greater complexity is needed to address the future needs of consumer electronics and mobile device vendors that will use 802.11n. As vendors jockey to shape the next standard, Gartner's Dulaney believes the new technology is still at an early stage. He doesn't expect it to be mature until 2007: "Vendors are just throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks."