Apple has signed on as part of a broad alliance to push a new proposal for faster Wi-Fi. The group, called the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC), comprises 27 companies, and was formed outside the standards process that has been working on next-next-generation Wi-Fi for several years.
The IEEE standards group handles wireless local area networks in its 802.11 Working Group. Within that group, there’s a Task Group N, the members of which have been working on efforts that have coalesced into two competing proposals for what’s called 802.11n. The goal of 802.11n is increased bandwidth – up to a theoretical 600 Mbps. This 600 Mbps standard would also have much higher real-world throughput, too: plain vanilla 802.11g delivers maybe 25 Mbps of its 54 Mbps rated speed. With a 600 Mbps standard, it’s possible that we could see 400 Mbps or even more in actual use.
The two competing proposals have stalled in Task Group N. Technically, they’re rather close, but in terms of how voting happens, neither side can achieve the 75-percent supermajority necessary to take a proposal into its final stage of development. The IEEE voting procedure is typical among standards groups in that members vote as individuals and only receive voting rights after attending several meetings. The meetings take place all over the world every two months, which puts a large financial strain on attendees without company backing.
Intel, Broadcom (Apple’s Wi-Fi supplier), Atheros, and Marvell, which sell most Wi-Fi chips worldwide, quietly built their own synthesis of the two proposals – the Enhanced Wireless Consortium – even while an IEEE group with broader membership tried to hammer out a joint solution by the November 2005 meeting. This splinter group circulated its proposal to Task Group N members and convinced 23 of them to sign on, including the largest consumer Wi-Fi firms: Apple, Buffalo, D-Link, Linksys, and NetGear. Only Belkin is missing from that list.
The ostensible purpose of this end run around the standard process is to cut several months off the time necessary to reach a supermajority-approved proposal. Companies left out, including the pioneer of multiple-antenna technology Airgo, are furious. Nokia and Motorola declined to join the EWC, stating that the EWC approach doesn’t have the tools necessary to put 802.11n into cellular handsets and preserve battery life.
Apple’s involvement in the EWC is good news for Mac users who like to be on the cutting edge. Apple was one of the first companies to introduce the 802.11g standard as AirPort Extreme in January 2003, and could be an early adopter of 802.11n. Based on user experiences, Apple jumped the gun a little with 802.11g; hopefully the transition to 802.11n will be smoother.
Task Group N could finish its work by early 2007, but if the direction in the EWC proposal is set in stone shortly, new chips that will interoperate among hardware from EWC members might appear by mid-2006. The EWC says that if the IEEE doesn’t adopt its proposal, members may finalize their standard and release equipment based upon it without the IEEE blessing.