February 2, 2006

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Techie: Faster than a speeding packet

Wireless networking gets faster. Soon. Well, sometime.

By John ďjaQĒ Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Wireless network not fast enough for you? Take it to the nth degree.

The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) finally approved a draft standard for the next generation of wireless networking, called 802.11n. Wireless access points, routers and cards will broadcast at up to 600 Megabits per second. Thatís 11 times faster than the current standard, 802.11g, and six times faster than even the most common wired Ethernet systems.

Now, donít rush out to buy up new products yet. Itís only a draft standard, which means there probably wonít be too many more changes, but itís always possible. And to ensure that all your various products are compatible, theyíll need to be certified with the 802.11n standard.

You may know wireless networking by its more friendly name, Wi-Fi, rather than the various arcane code numbers. The industry group Wi-Fi Alliance isnít certifying any 802.11n product as Wi-Fi yet. They canít ó even though the draft standard has been approved, it probably wonít be finalized until the end of the year.

Of course, that hasnít stopped vendors from producing stuff to sell. Even before the draft standard was approved, Belkin had released a ďPre-NĒ line of routers and network cards. They only boast ď600% greater speeds than standard 802.11g,Ē though, or about 324 Megabits per second. Not too shabby, to be sure, but not full 802.11n speeds.

Any pre-n product might claim to be Wi-Fi certified, but look closely. Itís likely only certified for 802.11b and g, not n. It very well might be once the standard is finalized, but it canít be yet.

What makes 802.11n so fast? Primarily, a broadcasting technology known as Multiple Input/Multiple Output Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing. But that makes no sense, so itís called MIMO-OFDM as well. See, doesnít that make it simpler?

On the off chance you still donít get it, Iíll explain. Wi-Fi broadcasts are in the 2.4GHz frequency range. A typical network chooses one channel in that range ó 2.417GHz, perhaps. Channels are separated by a few MHz. MIMO-OFDM can transmit and receive on several frequencies at once, clustered right around one channel. Bits of information are separated, sent on different frequencies simultaneously and recombined at the receiving point.

This division can even improve the performance of older networks. Since 802.11n is backward compatible with b and g networks, simply adding an 802.11n access point can speed up everyoneís connection ó not to 600 Megabits per second, by any means, but a little bit.

If you absolutely need more speed now, a pre-n solution might be for you. For most people, though, their wireless network is already far faster than their Internet connection, so thereís little need to risk the incompatibility of a draft standard.

 Comments? Thoughts? Discuss these articles and more at hippoflea.com

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