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How Wi-Fi Is Crippling the Ethernet Standard

Ethernet, the wired networking technology that originated at Xerox PARC more than 40 years ago, has always been remarkably solid. Much as Wi-Fi has ruled wireless networking since its inception in 1997, Ethernet has always stayed the course, adopting and refining new technologies as required, but never diverging from the path. After all, that is Ethernet’s strength: Without standardization, the world (or at least the world’s networks) would fall apart. Unfortunately, it now seems that those four decades of calm, gradual, standardized updates to Ethernet might finally be coming to a close.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is currently working on a new standard that will provide either 400Gbps or 1,000Gbps (1Tbps) of bandwidth over fiber-optic or copper cables when it’s ready for use in 2017 or so. There is a 10-gigabit Ethernet standard, but it requires costly Cat 6a cabling. Other efforts to bring 40GbE and 100GbE over from fiber-optic to copper will take a while and also need fancy cables. And because it’s already easy to saturate a typical Gigabit Ethernet connection with multiple 802.11ac devices, and second-generation devices using that standard threaten to make the problem worse, Gigabit Ethernet is rapidly becoming insufficient.

To resolve this problem, two separate factions have formed to offer technology that will push either 2.5Gbps or 5Gbps over Cat 5e cables. Though both of these “alliances” are made up of big players—Cisco is heading up NBASE-T and Broadcom is over in the MGBASE-T camp—neither is ratified by the IEEE. To make matters worse, neither group promises interoperability with the other, or with the next-gen IEEE standard (whenever it comes along). It actually seems like each alliance plans to commercialize its own tech, attempt to popularize it, and then try to convince the IEEE to recognize its standard as the winner.

There are two ways of looking at this scenario. The idea of pushing 5Gbps over a home LAN is exciting—and 802.11ac really is hamstrung by Gigabit Ethernet. But we really don’t want networking standards to diverge. The entire reason you can take your smartphone and use Wi-Fi anywhere is because of standardization. Likewise, what if your next laptop comes with an NBASE-T chip, but your office decided to use MGBASE-T?

Ultimately, this is a simple case of technology being is its own worst enemy: Our demand for bandwidth is growing faster than the pace at which new standards are ratified. When a standards body like the IEEE needs to make sure that thousands of worldwide hardware and software vendors are all on the same page, it simply isn’t feasible to move as fast as the single entities (Google, Netflix, Intel, Samsung, Apple, and so on) that are driving these rapid technological changes. In reality, there isn’t much we can do about either alliance—ostensibly they’re both doing the right thing, but it really would be better if they joined forces and did it together.

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