Its a Bird, Its a Plane, Its Super Wi-Fi?

NOT ENOUGH THROUGHPUT and efficiency in your Wi-Fi? Youre not alone in your plight. From the problem of hotspot congestion to the Wi-Fi-based consumer electronics that cant yet be enabled, the Wi-Fi industry is crying out for a hero. That technology of steel was supposed to be 802.11n, which will theoretically offer maximum data rates close to 600mbps.

The hero has turned out to be somewhat flawed, however. A ratified 802.11n standard has been delayed until well into 2008 by the IEEE. And so, the industry has taken the situation into its own hands. For WLANs deserving throughput justice, the situation has proven to be complicated.

The Wi-Fi Alliance originally said it would not certify 802.11n products until IEEE ratification, but in light of the delay and the fact that pre-standard 802.11n products already are shipping (tens of millions of units are expected to enter the market in 2007), it now plans to certify pre-standard 802.11n products in the first half of this year, based on baseline features from the draft 802.11n standard. As part of a two-phased approach, the Wi-Fi Alliance will certify pre-standard devices for interim interoperability, and complete its program when the full 802.11n standard is ratified.

Its a pretty complicated mess right now, says Gemma Tedesco, an analyst at In-Stat. We have pre-n products out there, which are essentially just g products with MIMO. And were getting new products now that may or may not interoperate with the final spec, or the earlier pre-n products.

For vendors, its a chance to capture a pent-up market. For instance, SMC Networks Inc. last quarter released a portfolio of products built on the draft 802.11n standard, available via the companys VARs and retailers. The company says the products are capable of achieving data transfer rates of up to 300mbps, which is 25-times faster than 802.11b and five-times faster than 802.11g. The same is true of D-Link Corp.s new Xtreme N Gigabit Router, also available through the companys channel partners (see 802.11n gear on Page 20). These are late to the scene, however, since the first pre-n products appeared on the market more than 18 months ago, says Tony Stramandinoli, vice president of marketing at SMC. This spec was rushed to market because consumers and small businesses are demanding it, he says. But we waited until we felt it was gelled enough to warrant coming out with a product. The demand is definitely there, and were in a good position to embrace the standard when it comes along, but also get in and capture market share early.

The products maintain backward compatibility with 802.11b/g wireless networks, according to Stramandinoli, but because there are competing technologies vying for incorporation into the final standard, there is no way of telling if the draft-n products will be upgradeable going forward. We just wont know until the standard is released, says Stramandinoli. Thats not an issue for consumers, but it definitely is for businesses. Businesses dont want to put in the 802.11n hardware upgrade for thousands of dollars, only to have to do it again in a year.

Even so, 802.11n-ish products will arrive in numbers this year, and that could mean new opportunities for channel partners willing to explain the evolving situation to their clients. This technology makes VoIP, video and high-bandwidth applications a reality in the wireless environment, says Stramandinoli. So 2007 will be the year for that market, which weve all been waiting for.

With the opportunities comes a learning curve. For one, super Wi-Fi wont supersede all previous versions of 802.11. Channel partners need to understand the architecture in order to understand the applications, says Stephen Rayment, CTO and co-founder of BelAir Networks.

A hallmark of 802.11n is its use of MIMO, short for multiple inputs/multiple outputs. 802.11n has a three-by-three configuration, with three transmitters and three receivers at the AP and the client. The three completely independent radios operate on the same frequency channel, with the assumption that there are multiple paths a signal can take between AP and client due to reflections in the RF environment caused by doors, walls, furniture and the like. The paths are uncorrelated, so different transmissions take different pathways, and the signals dont bump into each other. Instead, what you get is a much more efficient, and redundant, transmission system.

You can make that assumption indoors, but outside, the RF propagation is different, so MIMO wont help in a mesh scenario, which is almost line-of-sight and not multipath-rich, Rayment says. This and indoor applications for businesses and the home are good use cases; campus deployments, multitenant buildings and municipal applications may not be. Until its deployed and trialed, no one will know for sure.

In certain environments, especially the enterprise IPTV, video conferencing and home networking implementations, these products could be disruptive. All things being equal, a good baseline is that 802.11n will offer 50mbps of consistent throughput throughout a 3,000- square-foot indoor area, which means wireless LAN now can support devices that distribute video. The 802.11g version of the standard can achieve 20mbps if all the clients connecting to the network have 802.11g radios and its not being bogged down by 802.11b devices, says Tedesco. Thats fine for surfing the Internet. But if users are considering video, its not enough. You need at least 15mbps for a single stream of video to be delivered reliably.

With 802.11n, we may finally get to high-volume CPE like portable digital TVs, says Tedesco. Or say you have a TiVO or unified communications strategy and you want to send that content to different rooms and devices. This enables that.

Partners should also consider each iteration of the 802.11 standard as serving a niche, to provide a holistic WLAN strategy to customers. As 802.11n comes to market, 802.11b will remain viable for low-power and throughput applications, like e-mail. Also, 802.11g will live on in municipal hot zones and the mesh networking business, and will remain a lower-cost alternative to 802.11n for those who dont need the kind of horsepower that 802.11n provides. 802.11g costs $49 to $69 for a router, for instance, as opposed to $100-plus for a pre-802.11n version.

Despite all this, just how super the super Wi-Fi will be is under discussion. Pre-n hardware likely will not achieve the expected multiples of throughput improvement at first. Thats because client devices likely will be a hybrid mix of 802.11a/b/g/n, unless a company wishes to purchase all new laptops and routers. Hotels and coffee shops will have to wait the longest of all to see the full benefits. Until the client devices have MIMO, an AP containing it is of limited value, says Carl Weisman, vice president of engineering at 5G Wireless Communications Inc. It degrades to the received diversity. So until the Dells and HPs start including MIMO in laptops, 802.11n wont reach its full potential, especially in the hotspot.

For now, sales partners should be aware of the realities of the product landscape as offers begin to roll out, players say. We will see a few iterations of 802.11n product because there are still a lot of bugs to be worked out, says Tedesco. Its not right for every use case. And users of the pre-n products complain about getting kicked off, and you dont get the throughput in a hybrid environment. So its something to watch closely, despite the potential benefits.

Look, in the Sky!

Those who dread the communications blackout that comes with flying may be in luck in 2007. In-flight Wi-Fi may finally become a reality stateside, and workaholics everywhere can rejoice.

While 10 foreign airlines, like Lufthansa, now offer in-flight Wi-Fi from Boeings Connexion division, the plane manufacturer announced this summer that it would shut down the business at the end of the year. The only other game in town was Verizon Airfone, which was working with United Airlines to develop a service but then canceled its plans to do so.

To the rescue is AirCell Inc., which acquired spectrum for in-flight Wi-Fi in an auction in June and has received FCC approval for the service. The Colorado-based company, which specializes in atmospheric communications for corporate, commercial and military aircraft, says it will debut in-flight Wi-Fi in the United States in 2007. The service will be a hotspot model, with a Starbucks-level day rate (about $10). Frontier Airlines and US Airways already have expressed some interest in the idea, although the former said it would block VoWi-Fi calls to preserve passenger sanity.

Another alternative could emerge from discount darling JetBlue Airways, which was a top auction winner as well. JetBlue has said it likely would offer the service for free, and could sell to other airlines, but has remained mum as to exact details of the service structure or rollout plans.

Both would launch service in the 800MHz spectrum now occupied by Verizons underused Airfone service. Verizons license expires in 2010, but it must transfer spectrum to AirCell and JetBlue within two years of licensing.

For entrepreneurial VARs, it could be good business to tap the market segment, as hardware and integration are key components of the systems. There also is the possibility for channel partners to offer a subscription-based service if AirCell or JetBlue strike a deal with service providers or hotspot aggregators to help volumize and monetize the service. While no one is sure how the model will shake out, its worth keeping an eye on.

5G Wireless Communications Inc.
AirCell Inc.
BelAir Networks
D-Link Corp.
SMC Networks Inc.
Verizon Airfone
Wi-Fi Alliance

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