WLAN Standards Get a Push

IEEE officials will try to break the stalemate over 802.11n, which would increase throughput to 100M bps, and will evaluate proposals for mesh networking standard.

Officials from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers will meet in San Francisco this week to bring the wireless LAN industry closer to standards for high throughput, mesh networking and secure management frames.

Since 802.11n was first proposed in the fall of 2003, the industry has been waiting for the standard, which is designed to increase WLAN throughput rates to at least 100M bps using multiple data streams in a single channel.

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For months, the two leading standard proposals—TGnSync and WWiSE (Worldwide Spectrum Efficiency)—have been at a stalemate, neither being able to garner 75 percent of the votes, which is needed to move forward in the ratification process. Recently, the standards groups decided to compromise, but industry officials said that for now, the proposals remain the same.

Perhaps by November, "there will be a single draft that people can get behind," said Craig Barratt, president and CEO of Atheros Communications Inc., in Sunnyvale, Calif. Atheros provides WLAN radios to companies such as Cisco Systems Inc.

As things stand now, the IEEE is actually considering three 802.11n proposals. Motorola Inc. and Mitsubishi Corp.s MitMot proposal, previously out of the running, has been reinstated because of the stalemated vote in May, according to protocol, officials said.

The 802.11n standard is expected to be ratified by December of next year. While some vendors may jump the gun as the standard nears completion, "I cant see anyone launching [802.11n] products before the middle of next year," Barratt said.

Meanwhile, the IEEEs Task Group S is working on the 802.11s standard for mesh networking, in which packets are routed dynamically from node to node and only one access point needs to be connected directly to the wired network. Established industry players, including Motorola, Nortel Networks Ltd. and Cisco, are among those already offering mesh hardware, but IT staffs involved in deploying such networks say a standard is needed.

"We are doing some things with sites that use older technology or use technology that is prestandard. Each location generally has a small vendor, and they have to be set up one at a time," said Erich Berman, advanced technology consultant at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., in Milwaukee, and an eWEEK Corporate Partner. "With a standard, we might be able to come up with a standard configuration and outsource that to a single company."

802.11s isnt due for ratification until June 2008, although the chairperson of that task group said due dates are only estimates, and he has been purposely cautious so as not to disappoint the industry. "My estimate is the most pessimistic of all the estimates, and I havent had to move it out yet," said Donald Eastlake, chairman of Task Group S and an engineer at Motorola, in Marlboro, Mass.

At the meeting this week, Task Group S will be evaluating 15 proposals for mesh networking—some from individual companies and some from groups of companies. Proposals that receive less than 25 percent "yes" votes will be eliminated, but it may take several more meetings to winnow the drafts to one or two.

Meanwhile, a security-focused group called Task Group W aims to increase the security of WLANs via the MAC (media access control) layer, including access management, deauthentication and disassociation frames.

"The current IEEE 802.11 standard, including [802.11i], addresses the security of data frames, but systems are still vulnerable to malicious attack because management frames are unprotected," said Jesse Walker, chairman of Task Group W and an engineer at Intel Corp., in Santa Clara, Calif. "For example, network disruption can be caused by malicious systems forging disassociation requests that appear to be sent by valid equipment."

At the meeting this week, the group plans to adopt a working requirements document and issue an initial call for standard proposals. Still, the group expects ratification by March 2008. "Ratification of 802.11w should be fast by IEEE standards," Walker said. "It is a well-constrained problem."

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