11n draft 1.10: It ain’t over yet

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Tim Higgins

Chipmakers have been using the past six months or so to quietly spin new versions of draft 11n chips. I suspect some of these rev’d chips have quietly moved into the products without fanfare. Updated designs also appear in the form of dual-band products introduced at and around the Consumer Electronics Show. And I suspect other changes are still to come, especially if the industry decides to mode toward “wideband” WLANs.

As evidence of the need for consumers to still keep their wits about them, two of the “implications” listed in Atheros’ release deserve special note:

Draft 1.0 proved to be quite stable as the key technical differences between version 1.10 and 1.0 are limited to protection mechanisms for legacy devices during the operation of 40 MHz in the 2.4 band.

This makes it sound like the “protection mechanisms” are some minor issue, interesting only to wireless propeller-heads. But this is the key issue of whether to allow 11n products to be “bad neighbors” to existing 802.11b and g products. And note that Atheros doesn’t even say whether this key issue has been resolved in 1.10 and, if so, how!

Atheros’ current draft 1.0 802.11n XSPAN(TM) chips comply with the draft 1.10 specification and will require only a software update to bring legacy devices into official compliance with the anticipated final draft.

Maybe I’m being paranoid, but the “current” in the second bullet smells a bit wiggly. So I’ve asked Atheros to clarify whether all draft 11n products using its XSPAN chipsets that have been shipped to date are “current”.

Perhaps Glenn Fleishman has better sources than I, but I think it’s waay too early to issue the “all clear” for buying draft 11n products.

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Updated with corrections from Bill McFarland 1/29/07

In both private discussions and during the Intel draft 11n chipset webcast, I have been hearing hints about 11n's "bad neighbor" problem having been addressed in draft 1.10. I was able to get Atheros' CTO, Bill McFarland on the phone to bring me up to speed on what actually got into the 1.10 draft. Note that some of these mechanisms were being debated back when Draft 1.0 was being finalized. But since consensus couldn't be reached, the 11n task force punted and didn't include any of them in 1.0.

Update:Has Airgo no shame?

Just before Monday broke here on the East coast, Qualcomm (which minutes later announced that it was acquiring Airgo) "announced the availability of the world's first chipset offering full support for Draft 2.0 of the IEEE 802.11n standard". As Glenn Fleishman points out in his post, since Draft 2.0 won't be voted on until March of next year, this announcement is pitching a chipset that is based upon a "draft of a draft".

We all knew that at some point Airgo would come off its mountain and wallow in the pre-standard mud along with Broadcom, Atheros and Marvell. So I guess if you're going to get dirty, you might as well set a new standard. Congratulations to both Airgo and its proud new owner Qualcomm for establishing a new low in WLAN marketing practices.