Draft-N: Can money buy certification?

The WiFi Alliance took a principled stand against certifying pre-standard products. Then its members objected, says Joanie Wexler.


Apparently, adherence to formal standards is no longer a requirement in order for a product to be "blessed" by powerful consortia.

Last week, the WiFi Alliance officially announced plans to certify the interoperability of pre-standard 802.11n products during the first half of 2007. This testing will take place about a year before the final standard for the 100 Mb/s+, multiple input/multiple output (MIMO) technology is expected to be ratified by the IEEE.

The decision indicates that anyone with enough clout to do so could submit wireless LAN products to the WiFi Alliance for interoperability testing and become WiFi-certified, even if the products have nothing to do with the 802.11 suite of standards.

Vendors introduced so-called "draft-n" products to market far ahead of standards. Admittedly, many have targeted the consumer market where large-scale interoperability among many different kinds of devices is not as important.

"Given that 11n is more a consumer-level product than enterprise at this time, having a baseline set of interoperability tests to increase end user confidence is a good thing," said Jeremy Kent, wireless consortium manager at the University of New Hampshire.

UNH conducts its own conformance and interoperability tests and is also a certification lab for the WiFi Alliance. "But there's no guarantee that what you buy today [as a pre-802.11n product] will be interoperable with what's ratified later," Kent noted.

WiFi Alliance managing director Frank Hanzlik said in a statement: "While we are committed to supporting a full 802.11n standard when it is available, pre-standard products are reaching a level of maturity and there is enough market uptake that a certification program makes sense for the industry." (More of this in an interview).

Translation: The alliance has enough paying members jumping the 802.11n gun that it is feeling the heat to give the products its seal of approval.

"[The alliance's] members are pushing pre-N and they need some credibility," commented Craig Mathias, principal at wireless consultancy the Farpoint Group. Mathias recently conducted a month-long pre-N interoperability benchmark test of nine pre-standard "N" products on behalf of the Network World (read an earlier Farpoint test). He found that performance generally met the 100Mbit/s goal but that interoperability among products using different vendors' chipsets was iffy.

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