The WiFI Alliance will start certifying next-generation wireless LAN products in the first half of next year no matter what.

In a break with its usual practice, the industry group plans to start signing off on the faster, longer-range gear before the official standard for it is finished, said managing director Frank Hanzlik. The group is set to publicly announce the plan on Tuesday.

The WiFI Alliance tests wireless LAN products for interoperability and ensures they have certain features. Its well-known seal of approval, and the way WiFI products from different vendors work together relatively smoothly has been key to the success of wireless LANs. But the group doesn't actually set the standards itself: Generally, the WiFi Alliance has waited for the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc) to sign off on new specifications in its 802.11 standards family before the WiFi logo goes on the first boxes.

Wireless video streaming delayed

The alliance will do the same with 802.11n, the major new standard now being hashed out. But with the battle over 802.11n expected to delay its final approval into 2008, the group is also jumping the gun. In the first half of next year, in Phase 1 of its certification, it will test products for interoperability and certify them using whatever parts of the standard in progress that it believes are solid and unlikely to change, Hanzlik said. Boxes with a new WiFI logo - name yet to be determined - should start to appear by the end of June, according to Hanzlik. They will be clearly marked as pre-standard, according to the group. Phase 2 will use the final standard, whenever it's finished.

The 802.11n standard is designed to boost wireless LAN throughput to more than 100Mbps (bits per second) at close range and provide usable speeds in every room of a single-family house. It may also include features for sending and receiving big entertainment files such as movies and for increasing battery life in handheld devices. But a nasty fight over how to use multiple antennas and radios to achieve that performance boost has pushed back the expected approval of the specification several times. In the meantime, many vendors have shipped 'pre-N' products and are now selling gear based on the first draft of the standard, which earlier this year failed to receive the votes it needed for approval.

It needs to just work

If all goes well, a "first ballot" version of the standard will be approved by March of next year and form the basis of the Phase 1 certifications, Hanzlik said. If not, the group will look at the emerging standard in whatever form it takes and decide what parts to use. When it comes to certifying products based on the final standard, the WiFI Alliance expects to ensure backward compatibility with the gear approved in Phase 1, he said.

Some chipset makers have already conducted interoperability testing of their draft 802.11n products, but vendors strongly back the WiFI Alliance's dual-stage plan nevertheless, he said.

"The only way to really get the right kind of user experience is if there's an industry-wide interoperability program," Hanzlik said.