The IEEE 802.11n fast Wi-Fi standard has reached its second draft ahead of schedule, opening the way for Draft N branding as soon as March, and possible firmware upgrades for existing devices.

Products can't be called "802.11n compliant" until the standard is formally approved, but few changes are now expected before the final standard emerges. Approved by the 802.11n working group, Draft 2.0 must now get approval from the IEEE membership, to form the basis for the final 802.11n standard.

The working group, which had to go through 12,000 comments on last year's first draft, voted 100-0 (with five abstentions) to approve the draft at a London meeting on Friday, reports working group member Matthew Gast.

A solid Draft 2.0, delivered as expected, will allow the Wi-Fi Alliance to move on its plans to certify Draft N products, starting in March.

"The vote… indicates there should be little problem with the formal adoption as the final basis of 802.11n," said Glenn Fleishman of Wi-Fi Net News. "This also means that it’s extremely likely that my concern over the last nine months about early Draft N equipment not all being upgradable through firmware to a Draft 2.0 and final release standard will prove misplaced."

Fleishman predicts "waves of firmware upgrades for existing products", and more Draft 2.0 announcements, following December's Draft 2.0 announcement from Qualcomm's new subisidiary Airgo. The Wi-Fi Alliance should also be bringing out details of its branding programme.

Draft 1.0 products, such as the Netgear DG834N, Linksys WRT300N, Belkin N1, D-Link Rangebooster N650 and Buffalo Airstation Nfiniti, gave disappointing performance compared with the 300Mbit/s plus that 802.11n is eventually expected to deliver.

It is not yet clear which of these Draft 1 products will be firmware upgradable, but Draft 2.0 products should have a smoother path. "Draft 2.0-compliant equipment should be a safe choice for those with the itch to upgrade," according to Eric Bangeman at Ars Technica - at least for SOHO users. Business networks and enterprise equipment are still expected to hold off until next year. .