In this interview, TechTarget Australia's Ian Yates interviews Gartner analyst Robin Simpson about the emerging 802.11n WiFi standard.
Robin Simpson: 802.11n still isn't a finalised certified standard. The IEEE has issued an interim standard called 802.11n draft two and we've started to see some equipment come on the market like that. But the final 802.11n standard really won't be mature until probably 2008 or 2009. That doesn't mean that people shouldn't start using it though.
Ian Yates (IY): OK, so they can buy it as long as it's complying with the draft?
RS: I think for home use it probably doesn't matter a great deal but you want to make sure that your equipment is going to interoperate with laptops and other kinds of equipment. If you're doing it for small business or in large business, absolutely you should be trying to get draft two certified 802.11n and eventually sometime in 2008/2009, compliant with the proper 802.11n final standard.
IY: Now a lot of manufacturers are promising that they can be upgraded via software and this is something that we hope would have taken place previously but didn't; that you can do firmware updates to the final standard. Do you think that's likely this time around?
RS: I think there is a reasonable chance of it. We have had a similar situation before with the 802.11b to 802.11g upgrade. There is a reasonable chance that things should be software upgradeable and if you've got it in writing then they've got to deliver on that promise. The most important thing is don't buy any 802.11n equipment until you actually have a need for it. I think it's pretty important to think about whether you really need it in the home; it depends on what kind of work that you do.
IY: In the office, what are the benefits that are being promised for office users?
RS: In the office it looks like it is going to deliver the sort of throughput that might really make wireless office actually practical. Even today we don't recommend running the whole office on WiFi, because you just don't get enough throughput to run typical business applications. But 802.11n, particularly the final standard with the multiple antennas and some of the other more sophisticated ways of dealing with the protocols, you will probably get 150 to 200 Mbps fairly reliably. That should make some real office networking possible for the first time.
IY: What about the cost though? How compatible is it really going to be? Are they really going to make it so that you don't have to replace everything at once? Obviously you will have to replace both ends to get the speed boost but range boosting is supposed to be a benefit as well.
RS: That's right. I think that's probably where if you are looking to be compatible with other equipment, that's where you really should be looking for 802.11n draft two certified standard. Because the IEEE has made a commitment that when they bring the final 802.11n standard out, some time in 2008 or when they start certifying it, it will be backward compatible with the 802.11n draft two standard. So if you are looking for future compatibility it would be wise to get the proper certified draft two standard equipment.
IY: I guess for the home user you would think that all they'd have to do was buy a new box and a new adaptor but as you suggested earlier, what happens if they rush out and buy a new laptop and it happens to come with an even newer version of the standard. That might be a worry.
RS: Yeah I guess there's not a lot of chance of that really appearing before 2009 as standard in laptops. I think that backward compatibility will be really important for laptops. If you think about it today, when you get a laptop, it tends to have both 802.11b and 802.11g built-in and the reason is that a lot of hotspots people want to use are still using the old 802.11b standards. That will still be true in 2009; there may be more hotspots that are using the 802.11g standard and some of the early 802.11n standards but laptops in the field always have to be able to deal with a range of different standards. So I don't think that's going to be a problem from a laptop point of view but if you are buying an access point I think it would be wise to try and have something that performs to the standard.
IY: Yeah and something like you say that gives you a bit of a guarantee in writing that it can be upgraded in firmware and if not, then they might swap your box for one that can. What sort of take-up are you seeing now? Are many people plunging or are people just watching?
RS: I think a lot of people are frankly getting sucked in a little bit, but 802.11n has been around for a little while now even the pre-standard N. If you are just buying an access point for around the home and you know it works with your existing laptop or whatever, then that's OK, but if all you're going to be doing is accessing the Internet with a laptop then having fast WiFi doesn't really help you very much. The speed, of course, is determined by the actual speed of your Internet link. If you've got ADSL or ADSL2 or even ADSL2+ then you're still only getting somewhere around two megabits per second and if you're really lucky somewhere between ten or fifteen. So having a hundred megabits per second on your WiFi doesn't give you any benefit at all if your basic link to the internet is only 512K or 1024K or whatever.
IY: Yeah this is really only going to make a difference if you are talking between PC's, between laptops and servers and things like that because I guess even the old 802.11a standard will keep up with a 10Mbps ADSL link.
RS: That's correct and that's a really important point you raise because one of the areas where WiFi is really starting to have some interesting application is not so much just internet access around the house but being able to distribute your music and your video around the house. That's an area where 802.11n starts to make sense because you actually want a lot of bandwidth to do that and you are not dependant on your link to the internet, you are only dependant on a Macintosh or a PC or a media centre or whatever it is to distribute the video or the audio around the house.
To hear this interview as part of Ian's weekly podcast, 'A Series of Tubes' click here.