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At Last: IEEE Approves 802.11n Wi-Fi Standard After 7 Years

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on September 13, 2009

People who criticize companies like Microsoft and Apple for pursuing their own de facto standards instead of working through formal standards bodies might consider the long, strange history of Wi-Fi. The IEEE has finally ratified the latest longer range, higher speed version of the wireless standard. The move came seven years after the process began and more than two years after an all-but-final draft was approved and companies started deploying 802.11n gear.

In fact, Wi-Fi has succeeded, and has improved steadily, only because hardware and software companies have regularly given up of the pokey IEEE standards-setting process and have forged ahead on their own. There have been occasional issues of incompatibility, but it has been better than the alternative of waiting forever.

Apple and Lucent launched Wi-Fi products back in the 1990s before the IEEE ratified the original 802.11b standard. Even the Wi-Fi Alliance, a trade group more conservative than the hardware makers, has certified new standards long before the IEEE formally adopted them.

Reader Comments


September 13, 2009 8:58 PM

Anyone else looking for the rest of this story? Seemed to end rather suddenly.


September 13, 2009 9:11 PM

Nonsense. Companies haven't "given up" on the IEEE. Of course people sold stuff before 802.11b. That's why it was called 11b, Business Week! Because there was something called IEEE 802.11 without any letters after it and nobody would have bought it if it wasn't a standard. You need standards to have communications, Business Week. If we had left if all to your favorite advertisers, Windows machines wouldn't be able to connect to Macintosh. And the two companies would make all sorts of nonsense technical claims about why they couldn't. Business arguments that masquerade as technical arguments. Like this article.


September 13, 2009 9:17 PM

WiFi Alliance is useless and has no value. Vendors end up to pay so much money and run by marketing guys.
Vendors decide to move ahead without WiFi and IEEE.
Stop wasting money, time, resource, and precious profit for WiFi fee, rip-off.

Carol O.

September 13, 2009 9:22 PM

What actually takes "the 7 years"?

Do they work on it daily?




Steve Wildstrom

September 13, 2009 9:36 PM

@Carol O.--Everything takes forever. They have a meeting, then months pass. They circulate a draft and take comments for months. The voting takes months.

Rich Desmond

September 13, 2009 9:48 PM

Actually the g standard existed before the b before the n standard. Prior to that there was no standrad as their were still competing base network technologies they had to interface to Enthernet, Star and Token Ring. In fact IBM was still split between SNADS abd IP as a strucrure. Apple could do it because it was compatible with AppleTalk and Lucent actually developed the standard


September 13, 2009 9:59 PM


Yeah, that pretty much sums it up!


September 13, 2009 10:00 PM

Digital Television Broadcasting DTV was also promoted as being 'much better technology' than traditional Analog TV. If you ask 10 people who use DTV you will find eight of them will tell you it's flawed technology with picture freezing, weather related signal dropoff and other problems. Now the new Wi-Fi is touted as better? Seems like we've been down this road before folks!

Brian W

September 13, 2009 10:02 PM

Is a standards-setting body for anything Internet in any way functional if it takes SEVEN YEARS to get a standard set? They've either got to do better, or get out of the way. Do they think equipment manufacturers and users will just sit around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for the IEEE to weigh in?

jim miller

September 13, 2009 10:11 PM

Am I the only reader who doesn't need to be told what IEEE stands for? I can kind of guess but that is hardly what one would expect from an informative article.
Maybe Mike is right and this, too, is in that unfinished portion of the story.



September 13, 2009 10:11 PM

Rather disingenuous lead in to the article.


September 13, 2009 10:36 PM

@Jim Miller--Sorry. IEEE=Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.


September 13, 2009 10:37 PM

Thank you for your comment. Comments like yours are what these sections are for.


September 13, 2009 10:40 PM

Seven years?!? Isn't this obsolete by now?


September 13, 2009 10:43 PM


Please do research before you post garbage like this. The IEEE does NOT just sit there and twiddle their thumbs all day. The whole point of a standard is so that everyone agrees, and so that it is as best it can be. The problem with N was that after the preliminary drafts were made, more and more improvements on the specification were made, and the N spec was continually put through the system. Then, it hit the point where IEEE felt it was mature enough to be released. So no, they did not spend the 7 years approving the standard. It was 7 years UNDER DEVELOPMENT, until it became what it is today. Steve, please stay away from technology. Forever. At that, please stop writing. Forever. We don't need half-articles that are not even factual. I'm done with businessweek. K, thanks.


September 13, 2009 10:47 PM

Carlos, nobody went ahead without IEEE. Even Belkin, I think they might have been the first with retail draft-11n product. Even they basically waited until they thought there was enough consensus. So they could at least give you a firmware upgrade in case the document changed. If you think anybody could have made anything work without the IEEE, go ahead. Try making your own "standard" and see how that works for you.

As for whether you're getting your money's worth from the Wi-Fi Alliance, I couldn't say but I understand why you might be down on them. I wonder if anyone's made IEEE-compatible hardware, featured that prominently on the box, and then omitted the Wi-Fi logo.


September 13, 2009 10:53 PM

IEEE - Worthless, just like ISO standards all political and BS

Jon T

September 13, 2009 11:01 PM

Whoever Stephen Wildstrom is for Business Week, needs to go back to college and take a journalism course.
Not only badly written, but misleading and inaccurate. No research was done.
First thing about the essential IEEE standards, you know that standards that allow us to purchase light bulbs from any company and be able to screw them in
our lamps and allow them to work ?
Steve, no-nothing, Wildstrom if obviously NOT a member of the IEEE. What a moron for giving Apple and Lucent any credit at all, they are two of the reasons it has taken so long.
The IEEE for this standard, took forever because of the internal, battles from the members of the IEEE, who are the members of the large Corporations who need to work together and get aproval. It is the behind the scenes nonsense that had purely to do with greed, on behalf of the Corporate entities, who have to approve it. As Microsoft/Apple have moved to get market share, by being proprietary, and getting market share by control, rather than excellence, this model was going on. The key Companies wanted "their" way approved, to create market control. So, there was little cooperation, but there was a lot of backstabbing and inability to work together. This WiFi standard effects more homes and small businesses. What did occur, in the meantime, was that companies like Netgear, did Nimo (which I use), with was "their", n, an extended G. Then other vendors did the same, like leader Linksys, who have tumbled like a falling rock since Cisco purchased them, Belkin, and a few others.
But, they all wanted their way, to get market control as well as by not having a N standard, it meant more money for them, because one would need to get the vendor's router and network adapters, for their proprietary "n" of extended g standards to work.

The IEEE n standard HAS NOT BEEN APPROVED YET. What was approved by its members was THE SECOND DRAFT !! BETA 2.0.

The final approval of the real deal is supposed to occur in January. It will be improved in the process. However, if equipment is compliant with the IEEE "n" BETA (or DRAFT 2.0 level), it should work fine. Make sure that whatever networking equipment you want to get is DRAFT/BETA 2.0 n compliant.

Or like me, I am running Netgear's "Extended G", Mimo, for a few years, and it runs great and I am going to wait for the final approval and make sure that equipment I use, will be totally "n" complaint, after approval.

By the way, isn't it great, how a G laptop or desktop, or Nintendo Wii, works great, wireless with a Router that is G compliant ? They work great because of the IEEE.

I'll be Microsoft will do all it can to ignore this, as they have done with the "G" standard with their pathetic, proprietary XBOX. A normal, inexpensive or included (which it is not). Wifi adapter that used the G standard will not work on an Xbox 360. With their marketing plan, NOT to excel, but slow down and destroy competition, for wireless, on has to purchase Microsoft's own, made in Communist China, network adapter. You see, they decided to use this stupid "a", standard. It is not faster than G, it doesn't have a greater range than G, it is just different, just to make sure that people spend millions more on their proprietary trash. Just like they do with Ms Internet Exploder.


September 13, 2009 11:08 PM

Please provide even one example of Apple not working with standards over the past decade. There are literally none. They have lead the way on standards. MPEG-4 is the standardization of Apple's QuickTime and Apple delayed iTunes video for over a year in order to standardize it.

It's the ultimate on lazy tech writing to lump Apple and Microsoft together. They are opposites.

Joe B

September 13, 2009 11:24 PM

Corporations can't wait around for the IEEE to go through it's process and then start developing products. So, they design a way of doing something and then have their CTO try to get their method codified by the IEEE.
It's just a time-to-market issue and a competition between highly manipulative technology execs. Even if it seems a sometimes unsavory method, the market usually pics a good technology to standardize.

Walter L Johnson

September 13, 2009 11:41 PM

This article was informative but useless since it doesn't say which, if any, companies who started selling WiFi 802.11n gear before a final standard remain compatible with the final standard.

The advantage of a IEEE standard, even when it takes seven years to obtain, is once a IEEE standard is set, every manufacturer's complaint hardware will work with every other manufacturer's complying hardware. That allows users and companies to buy the best 802.11n router and buy up to many different wireless devices to attach to different laptop, PC, notebook, cell phone, etc. device for that needs to communicate with the router.

The standard also effectively encourages device manufacturers to build in the computer side of the link in their hardware, which saves money for customers. It also frees engineer time to invent new and better standards, while still maintaining compatibility to older standards.


September 13, 2009 11:48 PM

I ensure you that, especially, consumers enjoy everyday the standardizations offered and approved by the IEEE without even realizing it. Although 7-years to finalize the 802.11n set does appear to the uninformed rather long (and admittedly to the informed as well); it has not interfered in consumers enjoying the most essential offered by the 802.11n standard now finalized. And most of the existing 802.11n draft hardware will continue to work very well.

The IEEE offers even a more important role, in my opinion, for enterprise technology. And to that extent the 802.11n process is irrelevant as there is no accepted standard for wired-equivalent security on a wireless platform (so to you companies using wireless: stop).


September 14, 2009 12:13 AM

Well, maybe 7 years isn't long enough. Look at the blind studies by Arnetz et al. (PIERS 2007) showing cell phones disrupt sleep hours after use, and studies by Santini et al. showing people living near cell towers have sleep problems and other neurological problems. Wi-Fi causes higher microwave exposure than any cell tower. It was shown by Bise back in 1978 that microwaves could alter human EEG. So where are the safety studies for Wi-Fi? Of course the industry would be expected to hire an insider like George Carlo to run the studies... but now even he says cell phones are deadly!


September 14, 2009 12:18 AM

Think this is fun wait until Healthcare tries to have interoperability standardization on a wide scale. Vendors want it there way. Healthcare IT standardization will take at least 10 years. BTW what is after 802.11n? how long will that take?


September 14, 2009 1:43 AM

Well, Anything can assist to spread the gustice by the knowledge among the people will be acceptable... otherwise ya.. stop high speed and high tech...

Let us think to bring something more useful with more fair... with speed process ;)


September 14, 2009 4:22 AM

I think the problem is that standardization in itself is a very involved process.

The technology required for 802.11n standards is pretty complex and the standard itself requires a huge amount of testing to be well trusted by the industry. Especially since it is going to be the new baseline from which people innovate further...

I think this article conveniently glosses over how difficult it is to get a group of industry players to conform to a standard whilst trying to incorporate all of the latest developments in the industry to prevent the standard from being a white elephant...


September 14, 2009 7:32 AM

Anyone who's ever worked on a standards committee like this knows exactly why it takes so long. It’s a huge party for the participants. They meet at nice locations, have nearly unlimited expenses, and after the partying is over, the participants come back to their respective companies and say they fought hard for their company’s position. No wonder nobody wants it to end. I definitely don’t blame companies for bypassing these inefficient organizations.


September 14, 2009 8:17 AM

According to the IETF, HTTP is not a standard, it is merely a draft standard and has been for ten years.

It is not at all unusual for standards accreditation to lag use. In this case they had hardware to deal with as well. They can hardly propose a spec that the chips can't support.

The OSI specs were written the other way round. Nobody wrote any code until the specs were finished. The result was specs that never worked.


September 14, 2009 8:18 AM

I think some other posters hit the nail on the head.

If you want to know why the IEEE is taking so long, keep in mind that the group developing this standard consists of experts from industry - i.e. nearly all work for major companies that have a vested interest in IEEE 802.11 standards. (The rest are in academia.)

For years, there were two competing proposals for the 802.11n standard that were submitted to the IEEE. Think of it somewhat like HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray, except in this case rather than screwing consumers by releasing their version before a standard was chosen, both groups waited until something could be hammered out in the IEEE process. It took 4-5 years for those two groups to come to a compromise that led to the initial 11n draft release.

It could have been far worse - Both groups could have done what the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray backers did, leading consumers to take a gamble on which standard would win.


September 14, 2009 8:18 AM

It actually wasn't in developemt for 7 years, or anything of the sorts. There is a patenet holder in Australia that has taken legal action againts many manufacturers, as well as the IEEE for patenet infringement. This is why they can not ratify the standard. It is unlikely that until the law syuits are settled, the standard wuill ever be ratified, that is why companies went forward with releasing hardware in a draft x.x state.

Michael Davidson

September 14, 2009 10:04 AM

Onlookers are tempted to throw away any effort that does not dictate the outcome. Standards bodies exist to foster interoperability for the benefit of consumers. The vendors try to make money any way they can. I'm glad it was by bringing draft-n products to market instead of proprietary and closed tech. In that sense, the IEEE achieved its purpose long before the official ratification.


September 14, 2009 10:52 AM

> MPEG-4 is the standardization of Apple's QuickTime and Apple delayed
> iTunes video for over a year in order to standardize it.

Pardon my ignorance, but this sounds like koolaid. Aren't there dozens of firms patenting differnt contributions to the 23 part MPEG 4 standard?

And Apple is a paragon of openness? No, that would directly counter their obsessive control of the "user experience."

Joel @ Meru Networks

September 16, 2009 7:04 PM

Joel from Meru Networks here. IEEE standards are what makes communications (and many other things) happen, no questions about it. But I don't think there is any revelation that vendors already push standards bodies in the creation of standards. It happens in a few different ways; sometimes the standards efforts are started early sometimes they are started late. Either way, the market in general IS, in fact, helped when vendors push standards forward. What happens often is that a vendor, who has been doing research and implementing based on some customer needs, puts forth a method or solution to a problem that a standards body is trying to address. That proposal is almost always not altruistic in nature (bit of sarcasm there), likely creating some market advantage for the proposing vendor. But, at the same time, the standards bodies typically take the proposals, improve on them in an effort to speed up the standard creation process. 802.11n experienced this with TGn Sync and WWiSE - competing proposals with vendors backing each "camp". There was alot of debate but thats part of the process.

In the case of MPLS, it happened even faster with basically Cisco's "Tag Switching" moving that process along. Conversely, Apple controlling FireWire for so long and charging for licensing arguably stunted the market adoption growth of that until the IEEE created 1394. In that case, its arguable that while the process of creating IEEE1394 was relatively fast, the affect of Apple controlling the specification slowed adoption quite a bit and 1394 never got to be a “deFacto” standard in the sense that it wasn’t universally adopted by PCs and Apple architectures.

With 802.11n, the standard is very complicated (as mentioned in the above comments) and this was WITH vendor proposals to move the process along. Two years ago we (Meru Networks) saw the light at the end of the tunnel and it was thanks to the IEEE’s efforts in getting the standard to a level that was shippable (in our opinion) that we were able to get product to enterprise customers before any of our competitors and not fear that our customers would be stranded with obsolete equipment.

Now the standard is finalizing and in such a way that early products and customers aren’t “in trouble”. It’s the IEEE’s process – like it or not – that gets us to this point today and it was, in fact, helped along by vendor proposals. Even the Wi-Fi Alliance doing the testing is not changing their certification with the final revisions because its not necessary to do so.

So while I think I disagree with the “reconsider deFacto” thought, I would revise the thought a bit to say that its important, in a free market system, for vendors to step up with open proposals based on their experience and allow the process to improve it because this actually does speed up the process.

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