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Last Updated: Friday, 26 January 2007, 14:33 GMT
Tech rant: Wi-fi woes
Wi-fi users
Wi-fi has liberated many when working or surfing
BBC Click reporter Chris Long takes a look at the sometimes confusing world of wi-fi and asks if the industry is being open and clear with its customers.

What's in a name? It's an important question when it comes to the nebulous world of "wireless connectivity".

We call it wi-fi but its real name is 802.11. As with all these computer-type things it is a standard - something a bunch of companies agree on and then punt out to us with enough margin to make a tidy profit.

So, if we buy a box from one company it should work with a box from another company because they are both built to the same standard.

The confusion is that 802.11 comes in several different flavours - 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g and many more.

Each different flavour defines a different specification - for example 802.11a runs at 54Mbps on the 5GHz radio spectrum and 802.11b runs at 11Mpbs on the 2.4GHz radio spectrum.

In other words, the .11a standard was fast and rather clever and the .11b standard was slow and, frankly, needed all the help it could get.

But guess what; the "b" standard - because it was so cheap - was on the shelves first and took off.

The manufacturers knew a good thing when they saw it and beefed it up as quickly as possible.

As a result we got .11g which was the same speed as the slick "a" running at the same frequency as the rather poor "b".


Net cafe

Only that wasn't enough; "faster, faster" we cried, and the hardware manufacturers shrugged and picked up the phone to their research and development departments.

And that next standard is .11n. It will be the answer to all our dreams, although we are only at the "draft" stage at the moment.

Somewhere along the line, though, companies realised that without this new standard .11n people are holding off buying new boxes and that means less money coming in.

So then, what do you do when you don't have a standard but a desperate need to sell a "new version"?

On 9 January I got a press release headlined Apple Introduces New AirPort Extreme with 802.11n and then on the 23 January I received a further press release: New Compatibility Program for Intel Centrino Users with Wireless-N.

Both Linksys and Netgear - makers of wi-fi devices - already have Wireless N devices although another firm Belkin has shown some restraint by calling their devices pre-N and N1.

CES 2007
Some find wireless complexity all a bit too much

Actually, these devices are based on the "draft" specification - and if you spend a bit of time looking, it's there in the release.

These devices are draft 1.0. You won't be surprised that at the time of writing the specification sits at 1.10.

Draft 2.0 hasn't been voted on yet but is around the corner. And the whole 802.11n specification isn't scheduled for finalising until April 2008 - and it has been put off twice already.

The issue with the draft specification is what happens when it changes. If you are lucky, you will be able to upgrade your device with software; if not, you will have to dump it and buy a new one.

But is it fair to ask people to upgrade their devices without making it plain that you are selling a device that will need upgrading.

Isn't the industry supposed to be making life easier for the user? Isn't it supposed to be building trust with the people buying their gear?

Since when is selling patently unfinished kit to people going to help any of us?

You will still be able to use the new kit with old kit, only it will "fall back" to a slower standard - that is one thing that has been agreed - the standard that most of us have already.

Thus the answer to the question 'what's in a name?' is trust.

And so the new question is: Does the industry deserve our trust?

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