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Who’s Driving Wi-Fi?

Who’s Driving Wi-Fi?
Setting the Standard
Globally relevant

Who’s Driving Wi-Fi?

The Information Technology (IT) industry is really the marriage of telecommunications and data systems. Telecommunications required computers and computers required new systems for communicating among each other. There was so much overlap that it became almost impossible to distinguish between the two.

When IT markets first began to expand, users became concerned that the equipment and systems they were purchasing could not interconnect or interoperate. The consumer was not satisfied – and dissatisfied consumers do not buy more products. By simply not purchasing new equipment (at least until they were assured that interoperability was possible) the users forced technical harmonization (standards) through economic motivation (sales).

Today, just about everything associated with a computer, especially those connected to the Internet, is based on an industry standard. But the business of standards in the IT industry has been changing over the past few years, fed mostly by shorter product life cycles and the insatiable desire of vendors to develop new technologies that interact with existing infrastructures. This principle holds true for wireless local area networks (WLANs).

In January, an industry analyst reported that, “Wireless is one of the more attractive incentives to upgrade in 2003.” The resulting competition for consumer dollars has led multiple vendors to launch separate, and sometimes conflicting, technologies that have their own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. Now, industry experts worry that some manufacturers of wireless products are moving too hastily ahead of standards development.

Setting the Standard

Standards may be defined as “recognized units of comparison by which the correctness of others can be determined” or “a set of characteristics or quantities that describes features of a product, process, or service.” Regardless of the definition, standards are tools that can help end-users comparison-shop by emphasizing factors of importance – usually features, functions and price – and heighten confidence in terms of performance, safety, reliability, and overall quality.

When a market has not made up its mind on a particular technology option, or when economic, legal, political or cultural considerations come into play, competing standards may arise. Much like competing products, a market-leader will usually become apparent. If multiple technical solutions remain, the standard will typically focus on mechanisms to ensure interoperability, thereby leading to a win-win solution for all parties.

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has served as coordinator of the U.S. voluntary consensus standards system since 1918 and is a world leader in its support of the concept that market forces should dictate the timing, content requirements, and number of standards to be developed. The Institute does not itself develop standards; rather, ANSI accredits standards-setting organizations to create and maintain documents within a particular area of work. Standards approved by ANSI are the only documents that may be designated as “American National Standards (ANS).”

ANSI-accredited developers certify that they will adhere to a set of standards–setting procedures that call for openness, balance, due process and a consensus agreement of materially affected and interested parties. In almost all cases, the development work includes representatives of both the private and public sectors. While consortia standards may also offer a consensus-based solution to a problem, participation on the “problem-solving team” is usually limited to members of the consortia – a membership that often requires a substantial financial contribution. Thus, consortia are often referred to as “non-traditional” standards developers.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is one of the nearly 200 ANSI-accredited standards developers. A globally-recognized leader in the development of standards for the IT industry, IEEE’s work program includes the LAN/MAN Standards Committee that has been extremely successful in its development of Local Area Network standards and Metropolitan Area Network standards. The most widely used of these standards are for the Ethernet family, Token Ring, Wireless LAN, Bridging and Virtual Bridged LANs. An IEEE working group developed the family of 802.11 standards, commonly know as Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity).

The complete title of the base American National Standard (IEEE 802.11-1999) is Standard for Information Technology - Telecommunications and information exchange between systems - Local and Metropolitan networks - Specific requirements - Part 11: Wireless LAN Medium Access Control (MAC) and Physical Layer (PHY) specifications. Its two supplements – which were also approved as ANS –specify operation in different radio frequencies. These documents are commonly known by their designations: IEEE 802.11b™  is a standard for WLANs operating in the 2.4 GHz spectrum with a bandwidth of 11 Mbps, and is the most widely used by consumers right now. IEEE 802.11a™, the other standard for wireless LANs, runs on 12 channels in the less-crowded 5GHz spectrum. IEEE 802.11a transfers data up to five times faster than IEEE 802.11b, improving quality of streaming media with increased bandwidth for big files (54 Mbps).

Millions of people and businesses have already installed 802.11b networks. The standard is the only one deployed for public short-range networks, such as those found at airports, hotels, conference centers, and coffee shops and restaurants. However, because the 802.11b standard guides devices that operate in an unlicensed radio band and transmit data on the same frequency as some household appliances, a user may find interference while surfing the Web and using a microwave or cordless phone nearby. The 802.11a standard operates in the 5GHz frequency, solving the interference problem and better security, but its range is more limited. The 802.11a technology is incompatible with the 802.11b networks.

While not yet finalized, the IEEE working group is creating a new supplement to provide performance comparable to the 54Mbps of 802.11a while maintaining compatibility with 802.11b. The document, known as IEEE 802.11g™, follows the rule of “lowest common denominator.” That is, devices compliant with the proposed standard will also communicate with 802.11b devices – but they will operate at the 2.4GHz frequency. This backwards compatibility, though slower, is intended to protect the user’s investment in existing hardware and introduces a higher degree of security. While the IEEE committee is still working to ratify this standard, some manufacturers are already shipping products based on the latest (draft) version of the specification.

As technology and Wi-Fi standards development surges forward, it is clear that products will need to be delivered in various combinations of compatibility for the greatest degree of interoperability.

Globally relevant

ANSI’s goal is to help the standards community promote internationally recognized, technically valid standards that will provide end-users with products that work together, enhance compatibility, and converge on future architectures and technologies.

By working through ANSI, the official U.S. representative to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), IEEE technical experts are actively participating in an ISO/IEC joint technical committee on information technology. This group is working to confirm a single set of Wi-Fi standards that meet market needs in global, rather than simply regional or local, venues. Many of the IEEE’s 802®-series standards – including several in the 802.11 family – have already been approved for global implementation.

Which vendors will be the first to offer new products complying with the latest Wi-Fi technology? What will be the impact on the end-users of the new, or previously installed technology? Only time will tell. But one thing is certain . . . vendors and users who sit at the table where the standards are set have the most influence. And the long term advantage.

For more information about participation in ANSI, IEEE or the U.S. standards-setting process, please contact, Elizabeth Neiman, ANSI Senior Director, Communications and Public Relations, at eneiman@ansi.org

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