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SAN JOSE, Calif.—The first products that support a fully unified 802.11n Wi-Fi standard will start reaching the market in the second quarter of 2006, according to some of the wireless industry executives who are working to define the standard.

The executives, speaking here at a Wi-Fi Planet Fall 2004 panel on “N Wars—the Struggle to Define the 802.11n Standard,” said much of the next 18 months will be spent trying to hammer out differences between the two proposed standards that have the most industry support.

Another in the long line of Wi-Fi technical standards, 802.11n is based on a new radio technology called multiple input/multiple output that allows the transmission of up to 100M bps over a much wider range than the earlier versions.

Earlier this fall Wi-Fi engineers working on the proposed specification met in San Antonio and debated the merits of four separate 802.11n proposals, said Sheung Li, product line manager at Atheros Communications Inc., of Sunnyvale, Calif., which is also a proponent of one of the proposals.

These four proposals will certainly be cut back to two when the IEEE 802.11 Task Group N meets at Monterey, Calif., in January, Li said.

Click here to read why IBM believes it has the remedies for the “chaos” generated by the frenetic growth of the wireless industry.

The two survivors, the panel agreed, will be one proposed by a group of Wi-Fi equipment makers called the WWiSE Alliance and another supported by the TGn Sync group.

The question, Li suggested, will be how long it takes for the task group to unify the two competing proposals into a standard that everyone can agree on.

One of the sticking points in this effort is suggestions that the final specification be offered to the industry on a royalty-free basis. V.K. Jones, chief scientist with Airgo Networks Inc., of Palo Alto, Calif., said while this is a fine idea, “we are not guaranteeing” that all the technology covered by the specification will be royalty-free.

Two attendees at the Wi-Fi conference noted that some manufacturers are already trying to take advantage of the interest in 802.11n technology by introducing products that they describe as “pre-n.” This means that they support some aspects of the draft specification “just to make money while the issue is hot,” said Kabe Little, channel manager with Renasis, LLC, a manufacturer of amplifiers and antennas for Wi-Fi networks in Lehi, Utah.

Renasis itself has some of its own technology that it has thought about offering early support for 802.11n specification, but hasn’t decided whether to enter the market, said Little’s fellow channel manager at Renasis, Ryan McKenzie. “Whatever standard comes from these pre-n specification discussions, we will hopefully develop a product based on it,” he said.

It’s hard for manufacturers to make long-term plans about product design “when there is such a dispute over what [the specification] is going to say or mean,” Little said. If a pre-n product “only fits specific needs for a month, or a month and a half, it doesn’t do us much good,” he said.

Next Page: Disposable products.

Some manufacturers are willing to issues products claiming 802.11n features because they are “OK with making disposable products” that will be discarded when the final specification is published, McKenzie said. “They’ll just expect the consumer to buy a new router when the specification is set six months, a year or two years from now, McKenzie said.

While 80211n is interesting, McKenzie said his company is even more interested in the WiMax 802.16 standard because “it’s the real future of wireless” and represents the “true emergence of Wi-Fi/cellular networks.” Such networks will allow people to roam at will and connect their mobile devices to the Internet from coast to coast.

Click here to read why the Wi-Fi Alliance is trying to discourage manufacturers from introducing 802.11n products before the standard is fully defined.

“WiMax is a better suited specification for that, and that is why WiMax is so much more important than [802.11n,]” McKenzie said. WiMax will allows Wi-Fi to achieve all that it can achieve in terms of services for consumers, he said.

Instead of having one network for cell phones or another network for PDAs, service providers will be able to “build one network, with one infrastructure on one standard that will support everything, voice, data, everything,” McKenzie said.

Among the products introduced at the show is BelAir Networks’ introduction of the BelAir100 Multi-Service Wireless Switch Router that is a lower-cost version of the earlier BelAir200 router. The BellAir100 is a two-radio router that is designed for use in relatively compact areas, such as hotels, convention centers, shopping malls and airports, company officials said.

Customers could use multiple BelAir100s to create large-scale urban Wi-Fi meshes or to provide complete coverage in an enclosed building.

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