Two camps are ready for a showdown over faster wireless LANs following Motorola's agreement on Thursday to merge its proposal for the IEEE 802.11n standard with that of the World Wide Spectrum Efficiency (WWiSE) consortium.

There are two remaining proposals for the 802.11n standard, which calls for wireless LANs that offer more than 100M bps (bits per second) of data throughput. A task group of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is set to vote on the two plans on March 14, and if either plan gets 75 per cent of the vote it will become the draft standard, according to Jim Zyren, a spokesman for WWiSE and a voting member of the task group.

Motorola had put forth its own proposal, but it failed to receive enough votes at a meeting in January to go forward, Zyren said. Motorola got the support of about 10 per cent of voters at that time, and that support could shift over to WWiSE at the next meeting. However, that would put the voting at about 45 per cent for WWiSE and 55 per cent for the backers of the rival TGn (Task Group N) Sync proposal, he said.

Fight club

The standards fight pits some big industry players against each other. Along with new supporter Motorola, the WWiSE camp has Broadcom, Buffalo Technology, Texas Instruments and nine other companies, including Conexant, where Zyren is director of marketing of the wireless networking unit. TGn Sync has the backing of several of the industry's heavy hitters, including Cisco Systems, Intel, Nokia and Atheros Communications, as well as Qualcomm, which merged its own proposal into TGn Sync just before the January meeting.

"The Motorola move makes the whole thing a little more interesting. It takes the stakes up another notch," said IDC analyst Abner Germanow. He expects an intense political battle between the two sides before a draft standard is locked in.

Conexant's Zyren said he believes a draft standard will be chosen by the middle of this year and, if so, the final standard should be signed off in early 2007. He thinks Motorola's joining WWiSE helped to speed up the process.

Finding MIMO

Both proposals are based on MIMO (multiple in, multiple out) technology, which uses multiple antennas to set up more than one data stream between client and access point. Both include modes for using a channel that is 20MHz wide, like the channels used by the current 802.11g and 802.11a technologies, as well as a 40MHz channel, which will allow for much higher throughput. For example, the WWiSE proposal would enable a maximum data rate of 135M bps on a 20MHz channel and as much as 540M bps on a 40MHz channel.

Most individual Wi-Fi users don't need even 135M bps today, Zyren and others acknowledged, but higher speed could allow for smooth distribution of video entertainment around a home. In enterprises, it could allow more users in a particular area to share a wireless LAN, according to Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney.

In the WWiSE group, Motorola hopes to contribute work it has done to make sure mobile phones and other battery-powered devices can use 802.11n technology, said Mike Pellon, vice president of standards at Motorola.

"We want to see some of the ideas we have ... make it to the final standard," Pellon said. The company turned to the WWiSE group because it is taking a focused approach that fits well with what Motorola wants to do, he said.

Zyren said the WWiSE proposal is ready to use today and slammed the TgnSync approach as impractical.

"We think there's a lot of needless complexity in the Tgn proposal," he said. "We don't feel that it's practical to implement their standard today."

Joe Pitarresi, a technology strategist at the radio communications lab of Intel said greater complexity is needed to address the future needs of consumer electronics and mobile device vendors that will use 802.11n.

As vendors jockey to shape the next standard, Gartner's Dulaney believes the new technology is still at an early stage. He doesn't expect it to be mature until 2007.

"Vendors are just throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks," Dulaney said.