Wireless Wars Update

There's a comprehensive update of the long-raging Wireless Wars at the IEEE site right now, written by Greg Goth, and aptly titled This Little Standard Went to Market; This Little Standard Blew Up.   Those wars, you may recall, have been raging for years.  Most recently, attention has focused on a new and hotly-contested wireless personal area network standard intended not to replace WiFi, but to allow other types of devices – like stereo equipment – to be connected wirelessly.  IEEE chartered the 802.15.3a short-range universal serial bus (USB) standard task group to create a specification to satisfy this need, and many were the proposals offered by the task group participants to serve as a basis for that specification.  Although those many proposals were eventually winnowed down to two, the task group ultimately gave up in January of this year, when the final two warring camps couldn't agree on a compromise

And then there is the 802.20 long-range mobile wireless standard, which will provide a long-range equivalent to WiFi.  The IEEE itself shut down that task group last June to conduct an investigation, after charges of conflict of interest and favoritism on the part of the chair, as well as stacking the vote by some members, were leveled.  The IEEE standards board conducted an investigation, and found “a lack of transparency, possible ‘dominance,’ and other irregularities in the Working Group.”

I've written about each of these battles frequently over the years, dedicating the March issue of the Consortium Standards Bulletin  to Standards Wars generally, and to the wireless heat-butting in particular, as well as writing a number of blog entries that you can find here.   You can also find a file of over a hundred news articles on the same topic here.   Most of these battles have played out in, or around, the IEEE, and in particular within the 802 technical committee, which manages protocol development for local and metropolitan area networks.

The reason, of course, is that wireless offers huge economic opportunities in a multitude of settings, including communications between computing devices (desktops, laptops, PDAs); using telephones and pagers; between entertainment equipment, sensors and other devices in the home; between smart cards and terminals; between cameras and kiosks; and much, much more.  All together, billions upon billions of dollars of goods and services will be bought and sold as the world rewires itself virtually, and discovers a myriad of new possibilities in the process.  Together with such market-wide opportunities there are, of course, sub-advantages to be gained from being the first to market, or from leveraging your own existing technology – if only you can have the standard turn out to your liking.

Now, one of these battles has run its course, and another is operating, as it were, under the eye of a peace-keeping force.  Here’s what Goth has to say, first about the final resolution of the USB battle:

The infighting over the wireless USB technology led connectivity vendor Belkin to side with Freescale Semiconductor, which championed a backward-compatible, simpler, yet ultimately losing USB technology. Mark Freeman, senior product manager for Belkin’s Connectivity Group, says the political infighting “hurt the product from the standpoint that the standard was not being developed, and that hurt the technology as a whole.”

And so Freescale, which had championed one of the two groups that split off from the abandoned IEEE, ultimately lost the battle.

Turning to the still on-going long range battle, the IEEE completed its investigation and then allowed the 802.20 task group to resume operations in September of this year – but only after new officers and a code of conduct were installed, and a requirement that participants disclose their affiliations before voting.  Still, Goth reports that not all are satisfied with the improved state of affairs, notwithstanding the action taken by the IEEE Standards Association Standards Board (SASB) to curb antisocial behavior:

Stephen Wood, president of the WiMedia Alliance, believes the IEEE must address significant shortcomings in its process. The WiMedia Alliance backed the technology that emerged victorious in the burgeoning wireless USB market after the 802.15.3a abandoned its effort. Wood says the IEEE hasn’t yet taken suggestions coming out of that group’s experience to heart.

“They, like any large organization, have an embedded inertia that’s proving very difficult to modify,” Wood says. “They seem to be taking a position of, ‘We’ve been producing excellent standards for years,’ and they’re absolutely correct, but they’ve gotten used to the idea that standards naturally will be jammed for two or three years, and some of us don’t take that as a given. We take that as a problem.”

In particular, Wood says the “one man, one vote” principle can prove problematic in establishing a standard, because companies with a vested interest in blocking a standard can pack a meeting with affiliated voters. Technical changes require a 75 percent supermajority, so relatively few voters can stall a near-consensus effort indefinitely. Wood says lowering that threshold to 60 or 66 percent could help prevent that parliamentary tactic. He also advocates revisiting what constitutes a legitimate voter. There’s an uncanny correlation, he says, between how a person votes in committee and who pays their way to the meeting.

Meanwhile, the promoter group formed to support the losing USB contender, called the UWB Forum, is dormant, and Goth reports, “the direct-sequencing technology, which offered less complexity for users but also less flexibility for developers, is considered dead for wireless USB purposes.”

Will that be the end of conflict in the USB space?  Apparently only a battle has been won, and not the war.  Or, more properly, perhaps there is no overall war, although a succession of battles may be inevitable, as different wireless solutions are needed in different situations, and in order to satisfy the need to interoperate with other technologies and standards.  For example, Goth reports:

Because WiFi (IEEE 802.11) was set up at that time to be wireless Ethernet, which is asynchronous, the original 15.3 group knew they needed an isochronous MAC “if they ever wanted to move video with guaranteed quality-of-service,” [Bruce Watkins, the president and chief operating officer of Pulselink, a start-up in UWB technology] says. “So, 15.3 was designed from the beginning to turn Internet traffic into isochronous traffic so QoS could be guaranteed.”

For the long term, both Wood and [Mark Freeman, senior product manager for Belkin’s Connectivity Group,] concur with Watkins that wireless USB represents just the first generation of short-range UWB technologies. All agree further that provisioning of spectrum in networks with an overload of devices might be the long-term sweet spot. And Watkins says the attention the wireless USB fight attracted might have been akin to that of drivers who find themselves enraptured by watching an auto accident that didn’t involve them.

As to the impact of the squabbling in the long-range broadband group, Goth notes:

Roger Kay, president of industry analyst firm Endpoint Technologies, says such steps will be necessary for the IEEE to avoid becoming irrelevant in standards battles. “The IEEE is toothless in the face of major electronics companies with huge pockets, who will move forward, try to convince people they want their product, and later on will go to the IEEE and say ‘All done,’ ” Kay says. “And that doesn’t do the market much of a service.” 

Goth closes on a somewhat more upbeat note (depending on your point of view):  “The carriers have already deployed 3G,” says Gabriel Brown, chief analyst for wireless analysis firm Unstrung Insider. “I don’t think they have too much stomach to try anything else for a long time.”

All in all, a rather sobering report on the goings-on in one of the most commercially significant sectors of current standard setting.  But how much does it matter, you may ask, what goes on in a single working group?   In fact, it matters quite a bit.  Because who wins, and as importantly who loses, in these face offs has a large influence on what type of behavior we can expect in future standards activities.  If bad behavior succeeds, it can be quite damaging, because there’s not a lot that a standards organization can do to regulate the process if those that choose to participate are determined to misbehave.  After all, it’s hard for a voluntary, consensus-based organization to be too heavy handed with its rules, given that members can simply opt out if they wish.  Which is exactly what they did in the USB task group, when the heavyweights in the industry opted to step outside, and duke it out in the streets.

For further blog entries on wireless topics, click here

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