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How do you set Wi-Fi's flavors?

Posted: 11 Mar 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Wi-Fi? hardware configuration? 802.11n?

Good, better, best. Anyone who's ever set foot in an electronics store!let alone designed or packaged consumer technology merchandise!would understand this fundamental rule of product marketing.

An entry-level product!the "good"!should provide a baseline, albeit unexciting, set of features. Compelling features not required for ground-floor operation are reserved to lure customers to spend more for the "better" and "best" products.

In the WLAN arena, cultivating feature sets that preserve tiered product strategies has been a challenge. Aside from brief periods of technology transition, such as the emergence of 802.11g offerings six years ago, Wi-Fi products!like all standards-based merchandise!ultimately settle into "good" price points.

There have been attempts to carve out higher-priced niches for Wi-Fi, such as with off-standard modes that provided higher raw data rates or extended range at lower rates!provided you paired two products with chipsets from the same vendor. By and large, however, proprietary enhancements weren't effective at holding up the higher price points. So hardware vendors were left to differentiate their products with plastics and packaging, which meant they were in trouble (or they were Apple).

Setting the standard
The IEEE set out to resolve the good-better-best dilemma as they defined the proposed 802.11n standard. Unlike previous WLAN generations, draft 802.11n provides for optional modes on top of required schemes, so vendors can provide different hardware configurations that attain distinct levels of performance.

One of the easiest knobs to turn is to double the channel width to 40MHz, thereby effectively doubling the data rate. Though double-wide channels come with a power penalty that might require a costlier system design, there really aren't any additional component-related costs. As a result, 40MHz channel support will likely become a baseline feature that won't command a premium.

Another alternative is to dial up the number of data streams. This is a key approach to differentiating 802.11n hardware, because multipath implementations require multiple radios and antennas. Draft 802.11n allows for up to four data streams. That, combined with 40MHz channels, can take maximum raw data rates from 65Mbit/s!just a hair's breadth better than the 54Mbit/s raw performance delivered by 802.11g!all the way up to 600Mbit/s.

B>Different flavors
Nice, huh? Everything's in place to establish sustainable good-better-best tiers in the market. But things aren't unfolding quite so neatly.

The problem is that a uniform engineering standard was fired buckshot-style over the wall to a competitive bunch of hardware vendors, each left to their own devices to market the different flavors of draft 802.11n. Thus far, they've just marketed all products as draft 802.11n, without any hint of the spectrum of performance alternatives.

That hasn't been much of a problem yet, since the lion's share of 802.11n products shipped to date have been two-stream, 40MHz-capable clients and access points boasting maximum raw data rates of 300Mbit/s. But higher-end wireless routers are emerging that can handle up to three streams. And single-stream chipsets are finding their way into printers, netbooks and wireless handheld devices.

What's developing, then, are the three tiers that Wi-Fi players have longed for: 150-, 300- and 450Mbit/s. But they're all called draft 802.11n hardware, without distinction. What a waste.

A simple solution would be just to call the three flavors by their theoretical maximum data rates (n-150, for example). But there are other alternatives. The important thing isn't how the industry tackles the issue. It's that it's tackled. And now.

The Wi-Fi Alliance is a logical focal point. The 10-year-old nonprofit has stepped in before to bring the industry together on marketing programs. For example, when Broadcom and Atheros were racing to market with competing security-setup implementations, the industry got together under the Wi-Fi Alliance umbrella to craft Wi-Fi Protected Setup, an industry-wide implementation.

An alliance task group is investigating the draft-n flavors issue. With one-stream and three-stream products appearing in the market, the pressure is on the group to produce a solution quickly!because if it doesn't, then all three performance levels will simply be known as, you know, "good."

And as we all know, "good" isn't good enough.

- Mike Feibus
Principal Analyst, TechKnowledge Strategies

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