Intel and Broadcom push new WLAN spec, fear makes strange bedfellows
Maury Wright - October 10, 2005
Just when you think things can’t get any crazier in the world of WLAN (wireless LAN) standards, a new group called the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC) emerges today proclaiming itself the peace broker in the movement to faster WLANs. And here’s the kicker. Broadcom and Intel – opponents who arguably have been most responsible for delays in the development of the next-generation 802.11n standard – appear to be the behind-the-scenes puppeteers pulling the EWC strings. I’ve spent the morning trying to figure out the angle here and I keep coming back to one possible motivation. Upstart Airgo Networks with its MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) technology looms as a huge threat to the incumbents in the WLAN IC market. So the big incumbents have decided to write their own rules.
Sometimes as a trade journalist you have no real ability to discern the exact facts of a technology development and this is one of those cases. Check out the EWC web site and you can experience the spin first hand. The group wants to come across like apple pie and motherhood. They are defining the next generation WLAN spec for the good of all. And then they will offer their spec to the IEEE for adoption as 802.11n. Presumably by moving outside of the IEEE 802.11n working group, the EWC can speed development along. Of course the EWC fails to note that their own members are the ones that delayed 802.11n, and that the 802.11n working group is moving closer to the draft specification stage.
It appears that Broadcom and Intel spent much of the summer privately courting companies to join the EWC group. Without question, the list of supporters is strong. On the IC side, the list includes Atheros, Marvell, Conexant and Realtek. Essentially only Airgo, Texas Instruments, and STMicroelectronics are missing from the IC perspective. And the supporters from the end product perspective are equally impressive with Cisco, Apple, Sony, and Netgear among others on the list. There are big names missing as well such as Motorola, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft.
Apparently the EWC specification is to a large extent complete. So EWC members can begin developing next-generation products today. Essentially the group is saying that the EWC spec is the only one that matters, whether or not the 802.11n group adopts the work.
The spec certainly adopts some of the technologies that have been under consideration in the 802.11n working group. For instance the EWC spec will support a spatial-multiplexing flavor of MIMO. It may also support smart antenna and beam forming technology that is also referred to as MIMO by some companies.
I asked Greg Raleigh, president and CEO of Airgo Networks, about any shortcomings in the EWC spec. Airgo has been shipping spatial-multiplexing MIMO products for a year and their third generation just achieved Wi-Fi certification, so they’ve clearly implemented the technology in an 802.11g-compatible manner. Raleigh claims that the MIMO technology in the EWC spec is basically the same technology that Airgo uses in its True MIMO products, but that the EWC spec omits some key features that the 802.11n group is planning to include. For instance, Raleigh claims the EWC spec lacks some multimedia/video-streaming features that will be in the 802.11n draft.
Raleigh also questions whether the EWC effort will speed development of the next-generation standard and if it’s in the best interest of consumers. Raleigh said, “We believe that the best way to develop a standard is in the open process.” As for the EWC spec, he said “Bring it into the transparent standards process and do what’s best for consumers.” Raleigh believes that the 802.11n Joint Proposal Group that has been working on a compromise between the TGn Sync and WWiSE groups may have a draft specification by November.
I also asked Raleigh about intellectual property (IP) issues and MIMO since Airgo has clearly developed quite an IP portfolio around the technology. Raleigh would only say that as a member of the IEEE 802.11n group that it had agreed to license its technology on a “reasonable and non-discriminatory” basis – the typical language applied to IP and standard development. Raleigh wouldn’t comment on whether the EWC would infringe on Airgo’s IP. It’s also fairly murky what might happen if what starts as an EWC spec becomes an IEEE spec. But I’m betting that the EWC hears from Airgo’s lawyers sooner rather than later.
Finally, it’s my personal opinion that Broadcom and Intel have been playing a bit fast and loose with the unwritten standards and practices that govern standard development. The duo seems to have temporarily disrupted the very standards body that they claimed to have been participating in. Moreover, it appears they have been working on EWC chip sets for six months or more. But does fair matter in this high-stakes game?
In any event, Broadcom, Intel, Atheros, Marvell, Conexant and others clearly trail Airgo in MIMO experience. Airgo will probably ship their 4th generation MIMO chips around the time that the first EWC chips appear.
For more background on 802.11n and MIMO see:
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