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802.11n is Not About the Speed

One big takeaway from CES 2007 was the emergence of 802.11n Wi-Fi components and equipment. One year ago, such devices were very bleeding edge and not readily adopted due to a lack of confidence in a stable IEEE standard. This year was entirely different with multiple vendors happily embedding devices supporting the standard. I expect that devices that use anything but 802.11n next year will be an anomaly.

I’d like to thank the representatives from Atheros (ATHR) for their time answering my probing and skeptical questions. Broadcom (BRCM) and Marvell (MRVL) are also big Wi-Fi chipset players, though I didn’t speak with them. Atheros provided me with a great deal of insight into what 802.11n really means (and put up with my probing and skeptical questions), though it must be said they certainly are biased in favor of deploying it. The big news about -N isn’t the speed boost. Sure, the 80-100mb effective throughput will be useful for the small fraction of the population looking to stream high-def video around their home. What is overlooked are the range improvements and the resulting increase in perceived user quality.

802.11n will make Wi-Fi a much more reliable infrastructure. This means that existing applications like mobile VoIP should work better, and new ones not conceived today will become possible. We’ve gone from 802.11b to a to g but none of the technologies looks to be as big a leap as 802.11n. History shows that a high quality, reliable infrastructure results in more use and I think Wi-Fi is about to make that jump.

The new specification is nearly complete. In fact, the latest draft was approved by the IEEE task force today. There are likely to be small changes going forward, but certainly nothing that cannot be corrected in software. This means that systems shipping in February will be 99.99% compliant. The mere act of shipping these products assures that no vendor will throw sand into the gear of the standards body (and oh do they turn slowly) and risk stranding a large installed user base.

The availability of a more reliable and faster Wi-Fi infrastructure in the home is one driver in what I see as my biggest takeaway from CES this year, the fact that home networks are becoming complex and difficult to manage.


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  1. Unfortunately, I believe that the 802.11n chipset vendors and the (consumer) equipment providers are only providing half of the story. While 802.11n DOES provide reduced interference between the client devices and endpoints when compared to a similar 802.11g or 802.11b setup due to the use of multiple antennas, 802.11n achieves greater speed through the use of a wider, double wide radio channel.

    What this means in plain english is that introduction of an 802.11n access point is twice as likely to result in interference with existing 802.11b/g networks as introduction of an 802.11b/g access point. Furthermore, since there are only three non-overlapping radio channels, expect to see real-world performance in urban and up to 1/2 acren lot suburban settings to suffer significantly for everyone as the marketing machines of Linksys and their ilk drive up demand for 802.11n products.

    IMHO, only those few consumers with high speed file / video transfer needs and uber-mansions of 5000 square feet will actually benefit from 802.11n technology. However, like the iPhone (see other blog entry), this isn’t about need, is it? It’s about creating demand and getting to consumer to scratch the itch called desire…


    Posted by Albert Lew | January 22, 2007, 8:28 PM
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