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Old-school Wi-Fi is slowing down networks, Cisco says

Stephen Lawson | Jan. 28, 2014
The early Wi-Fi standards that opened the world's eyes to wire-free networking are now holding back the newer, faster protocols that followed in their wake, Cisco Systems said.

For example, a smart power meter installed on the far end of a house may have to go through several walls to get to the home's Wi-Fi Internet gateway, he said. A 1Mbps rate may be the only option for achieving that distance.

"You can rely on the fact that the infrastructure today in the home supports 1Mbps. We'd lose something powerful about Wi-Fi that we have today if we eliminated that," Jones said.

The Hart and Myles proposal suits the enterprise market that is Cisco's bread and butter, he said. In offices, range is less important than capacity, and the newer wireless LANs being used in enterprises have access to the 5GHz band and its riches of additional spectrum uncluttered by 2.4GHz-only devices, Jones said. But not all Wi-Fi fits that profile. "We need to take into account all market segments," he said.

Jones was there for Hart's presentation and brought up his objections there. "We had a nice discussion about it," he said, adding that he and Hart are friends.

Hart presented the idea in the 802.11's Maintenance Task Group, which addresses technical issues not covered by the special groups that craft new standards such as those that periodically boost the speed of Wi-Fi. The next step will be for members to check within their companies to find out who may want to continue using older protocols. Members of the Maintenance group are now due to exchange comments on the plan. Hart hopes to have those comments resolved by July.

The two sides aren't necessarily on the brink of a standards war. Both Jones and Hart are in favor of approaching the Wi-Fi Alliance for its help in addressing the issue. Jones said there may be new ways to address the lower rates but that it's important to know what the current and future markets for those technologies look.

"What we're not open to is being hasty and to putting in motion a series of events that has these important modes not available any longer," Jones said.

Some industry analysts think the time has come to move on.

"If you look at especially public-access hotspots, the rationale for providing that backwards compatibility gets a little thin," Yankee Group analyst Ken Rehbehn said. "People generally upgrade their devices every two years."

"Older technologies really should be phased out over time," said Craig Mathias of the consulting company Farpoint Group, which recommends not buying Wi-Fi products that don't have at least 802.11n. One benefit to letting vendors leave out the earliest Wi-Fi protocols might be simpler and less expensive chips, he said. "I think in general, we would see some benefit from this," Mathias said.


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