Inside 802.11n

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Sidebar: What’s with those numbers and letters?

The IEEE never intended the general public to wrestle with how it names things, and 802.11n seems perfectly a perfectly reasonable name to a set of engineers.

The 802.11n standard is part of the 802 committee that focuses on local and metropolitan scale networking standards, including Ethernet (802.3). Inside that committee, the 802.11 Working Group handles wireless LANs. Its first standard, plain old 802.11, defined 1 and 2 Mbps networking speeds.

Various lettered task groups have been formed over the years to handle issues: b for the first robust WLAN standard, e for improved video and voice quality, and i for security. (Capitalization counts: lowercase letters define amendments, in this case to the original 802.11 spec; uppercase, standalone specifications.)

The Wi-Fi Alliance tries to make some sense out of these designations by providing friendly names and consistency. As a trade group, the alliance only allows the name Wi-Fi to be put on devices that meet its lab-based tests, which include requirements for interoperability with a set of standard equipment in the lab.

The Wi-Fi Alliance took the long-delayed 802.11i security spec, for instance, and released an interim certification in 2003 called Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA); they later updated that to WPA2 when the full 802.11i spec was done.

The group expects to certify devices as compliant to the draft of 802.11n that’s expected to approved in March 2007. They haven’t decided on a name for it yet.

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