Electronic Design
Happy 20th Birthday To The IEEE 802.11 WLAN Working Group

Happy 20th Birthday To The IEEE 802.11 WLAN Working Group

Can you believe it has been 20 years since the first 802.11 wireless standard? Time has a way of flying by, and the successes of such endeavors get lost in the annals of history. Yet 20 years of significant work and development are worthy of note, given the extensive use of the 802.11 standards.

I suspect that all of you use the 802.11 wireless local-area network (WLAN) standard in some way. Better known as Wi-Fi to the general public, 802.11 is something you use at home in your own network and via an access point at work. You regularly hit the hotspots while on the road. And, no doubt, you have it on your smart phone. What would we do without it?

The first really useful version of the standard came along in 1997. Designated, 802.11b, it provided wireless links to networks in the 2.4-GHz unlicensed spectrum at speeds to 11 Mbits/s. Improvements moved the standard forward in 1999 with the addition of the 5-GHz unlicensed spectrum and a 54-Mbit/s data rate with orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) in the 802.11a standard.

The 802.11g standard came next with 54 Mbits/s in the 2.4-GHz band. Later in 2009 we got the 802.11n standard, which uses multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) to get us up to speeds of near 600 Mbits/s under good conditions.

But we don’t see all the behind the scenes technical work that goes on in the Working Groups (WGs), which are continuously slaving away on enhancements and accessories to develop ancillary standards like security and quality of service (QoS), as well as even more “boring” stuff.

I recently spoke with Bruce Kraemer, the current chair of the 802.11 Working Groups, to get an update on what is coming down the line. I asked about the long overdue 802.11s standard, a mesh network version that required the development of a peer-to-peer addition, which turned out to be a major chunk of additional work. That standard is moving forward, and we can expect to see a final version near the end of 2011. I suspect the mesh version will greatly expand the use of 802.11 in sensor networks and in industrial applications.

The most interesting work is being done in the Very High Throughput (VHT) groups. The ac WG is working on a faster version for use in the current 5-GHz spectrum. Using greater-bandwidth channels, higher-order modulation, and up to eight spectral streams, speeds of up to 7 Gbits/s are the target.

The ad WG is working toward the same 7-Gbit/s data rate but using the unlicensed 60-GHz spectrum. The range is expected to be more limited, but for some applications this is okay. In both the ac and ad standards, the media access controller (MAC) is expected to remain essentially as is. Look for final versions of both VHT WG standards near the end of 2012.

Other projects include the 802.11aa group working toward optimizing QoS for video streaming. And, the new 802.11af group is working on new radio standards for the newly approved white space spectrum in the unused TV bands from 500 to 700 MHz. The Federal Communications Commission refers to it as “super Wi-Fi,” a version that won’t necessarily be faster but will have extended range and reliability. It is expected to play a major role in implementing the National Broadband Plan in the coming years.

Congrats to the 802.11 WG and all those who have worked on it over the years. Thanks for creating one of the most widely used wireless standards in history.

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