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Most of us use wireless networking at home, the office or when traveling. Generally, we don't think too much about it. It just works - most of the time. There are occasional signal problems but wired connections aren't perfect either.

Well the situation is getting worse. More and more wireless gear is shipping that does not conform to any established standard nor is it certified by any independent testing group.

How could this happen?

The most widely used wireless networking standard is 802.11g. The IEEE assigned this designation. They are the group that defines many technical standards in the electronics industry. How the standards are met and enforced is up to the industry to determine.

In 2003, the IEEE decided a new wireless standard is needed - one that provides "significantly higher throughput for current applications and to enable new applications and market segments". They named the standard 802.11n and hoped to have it ratified in late 2005 or early 2006.

Defining new standards is a lengthy process. It can take years for a new IEEE standard to be drafted, circulated, revised, re-drafted, and eventually approved. A draft of the 802.11n standard circulated in March of 2006 drew over 12,000 comments. While most of the comments are insignificant, they must all be reviewed and considered.

In-fighting has taken place among members of the standards committee as wireless device manufacturers seek to have their proprietary technology become the industry standard. Any company that succeeds in getting its intellectual property defined as the standard will reap huge rewards as it licenses the technology to other firms.

To help keep the process fair and open, a 75% approval vote is needed for ratification of a new standard. It now looks like the first quarter of 2008 is the earliest that the new wireless standard can be ratified.

Of course, wireless equipment firms become impatient with the process and often jump the gun.

Thus, we have pre-N and draft-N wireless products. While such devices may work well in isolation, there is no guarantee that they will be compatible with each other or the final standard.

Wireless manufacturers are hoping that a simple firmware upgrade to the devices they sell today will meet the final standard. They are not guaranteeing compliance, however, and you could be stuck with replacing the gear.

A common approach used by 802.11n class devices is called MIMO, Multiple Input / Multiple Output. This is a technique for breaking up a signal into multiple parts, transmitting the parts independently using multiple antennas and reassembling them at the receiving end. While seemingly complex, this results in much higher throughput rates and extended range.

MIMO is not the only way to increase throughput and range. Unfortunately, compatibility becomes a big problem with the devices on sale today. If you purchase a suite of wireless gear from a single manufacturer, you can be assured that your wireless network will operate reliably. However, if you have purchased gear from multiple vendors and need to have interoperability, forget it.

This isn't the first time that manufacturers have modified an IEEE standard. Some of the 802.11g wireless gear sold today claims to double data rates by using compression. While useful, this technique only works if the sender and receiver are made by the same manufacturer. In a mixed environment, everything operates at normal speed without compression.

Why are standards so difficult to define? In a word, it comes down to compatibility. 802.11n devices must be compatible with the wireless devices we use today. For example, many notebook computers have 802.11g built into them.

These systems must continue to operate reliably on an 802.11n network regardless of manufacturer.

Some of today's pre-N and draft-N devices do not pass this test and may even interfere with existing wireless networks. Interference can often be cured by re-configuring an existing network to use a different frequency or channel, but this becomes another network management headache.

There is hope on the horizon. An industry trade group called the WiFi Alliance already conducts certification tests on wireless devices from a variety of manufacturers. They verify conformance to IEEE standards and test for interoperability among vendors.

Starting in early 2007, the WiFi Alliance has offered to certify "baseline features from the developing IEEE 802.11n standard" and to test interoperability. While somewhat risky, this should help stabilize the market and offer some hope that a device purchased today will be upgradeable to tomorrow's standard.

Final details have not yet been announced but look for certified draft-N gear to appear in mid-2007.

The final 802.11n standard may not provide the fastest possible wireless connectivity or the longest range. In the end, standards are a set of compromises affecting cost, size, performance, etc. Thus, some vendors may continue to sell proprietary devices claiming to be faster or have longer range.

For general-purpose use, it's always best to stay with standard gear. However, if you have a special situation that industry standards cannot meet, consider buying non-standard wireless gear. It will be more expensive to purchase and configure but if the demands of the business require it, don't hold back.

Vin D'Amico is Founder and President of DAMICON, your ADJUNCT CIO™. He helps companies avoid the subtle mistakes that cause missed deadlines, lost opportunities and fragile results. He shows them agile approaches that slash risk and cut development time so they get to market 25-50% faster. He helps them carry that momentum into the sales cycle using white papers and case studies that accelerate the selling process.

This article appeared in Vin's monthly Virtual Business column for the IndUS Business Journal in January 2007.

To learn more about how DAMICON can help your business, please take a look at our service programs.

Virtual Business

Virtual Business

This column appears monthly in the IndUS Business Journal.