The first wireless networking chips capable of powering gigabit-per-second speeds using the forthcoming IEEE 802.11ac standard are starting to emerge, with routers and other consumer networking products expected to launch in the second half of 2012. With speeds three times faster than the current generation of Wi-Fi routers, the new products will speed up synchronization between home devices and greatly improve the quality of in-home audio and video streaming, according to Gigabit Wi-Fi vendors.
Broadcom and Quantenna are among the first to announce Gigabit Wi-Fi chips, and expect them to be used in routers, set-top boxes and PCs. Smartphones and tablets will also eventually have chips supporting the 802.11ac standard, Broadcom says. More products based on the standard are expected to be on display at the International CES expo in Las Vegas next week.
The 802.11ac standard is still officially in draft form, and working its way through the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). It uses the 5GHz band, rather than the 2.4GHz band relied upon by today's 802.11n (although 11n actually uses both). Routers using chips from Broadcom and others are expected to support both standards, and seamlessly switch between them as needed.
But 802.11ac isn't the only gigabit-speed wireless technology about to hit the market. A companion technology using the 60GHz frequency band is also in the works at the Wireless Gigabit Alliance (or WiGig), and will power speeds of 7 Gigabits per second, as we've noted in previous coverage—but only across short distances. These devices can potentially replace HDMI and other cables, but will only work across devices in the same room, while 802.11ac routers will power the whole home. WiGig technology from the likes of Wilocity is expected to be on display at CES.
"As you go up the spectrum there is a tradeoff between throughput and range," notes Kelly Davis-Felner, marketing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance, a trade group that certifies devices to ensure interoperability and compatibility with IEEE standards. The Wi-Fi Alliance will certify devices on both the 5GHz and 60GHz spectrum. Rather than competing against each other, Davis-Felner says wireless vendors envision homes powered by 5GHz routers but with "Islands" of 60GHz connectivity.
and 60GHz will both have an interesting and exciting future, but they really aren't substitutes for one another," she said, noting that 60GHz technology could have interesting applications for gaming.
On the 5GHz side, Quantenna announced a new chipset for 802.11ac in November, and just this week Broadcom introduced several new chips, with the fastest using three streams to reach up to 1.3 Gigabits per second. Two-stream chips will hit 867Mbps while a single-stream implementation will go up to 433Mbps. The chips are "three times faster and up to six times more power efficient than equivalent 802.11n solutions," Broadcom said in the announcement.
Broadcom is sampling the chips with hardware partners, will demonstrate their capabilities at CES, and begin wider-scale distribution in the next several months. Asus, Belkin, Buffalo, D-Link Systems, Lenovo, LG, Microsoft, Motorola, Netgear and others were all quoted in the Broadcom announcement.
Rahul Patel, VP of marketing in the wireless LAN business at Broadcom, said to expect hardware partners to ship consumer devices based on Broadcom's new chips in the second half of this year. The first routers will likely cost between $129 and $199, depending on the configuration, with entry-level devices eventually offering a lower price, he said.
Escaping a crowded spectrum
802.11ac and the 5GHz spectrum will offer numerous technical benefits, Patel argues. The 2.4 spectrum is crowded not only with Wi-Fi devices but Bluetooth, baby monitors, microwaves, cordless phones, and more. 5GHz is less crowded while offering many more available channels. Still, the 2.4GHz spectrum offers greater range, a limitation vendors are trying to overcome.
"The laws of physics favor 2.4GHz for range. There is no two ways about it," Patel said. "But despite having the range benefits, it is kind of a shared medium and there is only so much you can do when you're limited by the number of channels available."
Patel goes even further and says devices using Broadcom chips will have as much as double the actual range of today's 802.11n devices, because of technology improvements like beamforming, which compresses signals to make them more powerful. Beamforming will also be used heavily in WiGig. If you're storing high-definition video content on a DVR or hard drive and want to stream it to a television in another room, "you would potentially benefit dramatically by having higher-performing Wi-Fi," he said.
Broadcom is calling its technology 5G Wi-Fi, or fifth-generation, not to be confused with 4G cellular networks. Whatever term they use, Broadcom says the "increased speed enables consumers to download Web content from a mobile device faster and quickly synch large files, such as videos, in a fraction of the time it would take on a similar 802.11n device," and that power savings will occur because devices that download data faster will enter low-power mode much earlier. Because 802.11ac transmissions start out faster than those from current devices, someone standing 30 feet from an 802.11ac access point will get the same data throughput as if they were standing 10 feet from an 802.11n transmitter, Broadcom claims.
Patel also believes there will be benefits to businesses. Although Gigabit Wi-Fi isn't going to replace 10 Gigabit Ethernet networks, businesses may see super-fast Wi-Fi as an alternative to Gigabit Ethernet connections, particularly because it makes smartphones and tablets in business settings more viable, he said.
Early adopters, beware
Any 802.11ac router that hits the market anytime soon will carry some risk for consumers, because the first devices to ship will be based on a draft version of the standard. While the Wi-Fi Alliance will begin testing implementations in the summer, the actual certification program won't be launched until the end of this calendar year.
"You will see products ship this year that we have not certified," Davis-Felner says. The same happened with 802.11n, and it did create problems, she notes. "Back in 2005, 2006, people were building pre-standard equipment and selling it and it was not delivering on the user experience." The biggest problem is interoperability—devices built by different vendors not connecting to each other.
Davis-Felner expects the process to go much more smoothly this time. Vendors have learned their lesson and are on board with the cooperation needed to make devices work together, she said. Additionally, the draft of the 802.11ac standard circulating today is more mature than the 11n draft that was available when vendors started shipping products based on that standard.
Draft devices sold to consumers may need software updates after the final standard hits. Then again, they may work perfectly well, making it unnecessary.
"The companies shipping products are also really active in the Wi-fi Alliance," she said. "So its not like there's some huge information disconnect. The Broadcoms and Qualcomms of the world know what's emerging from Wi-Fi Alliance work." After the final specification becomes available, "they may or may not opt to issue upgrades or updates to in-field products at that time. That's kind of a vendor decision."
Davis-Felner notes that there's no reason to stop using 2.4GHz. But devices may use that spectrum for tasks like e-mail and Web browsing and reserve 5GHz for heavier-duty tasks. "I don't have any reason to think [2.4] is ever going away," she said. "It's great spectrum. It's spectrum that has worked very well for the last 12 or 13 years."
The Wi-Fi Alliance and others believe it will be a couple of years before 802.11ac-based products become the leader in shipments. ABI Research says 802.11ac will be the dominant Wi-Fi protocol by 2014, with most devices sold containing dual-band chipsets supporting both 11ac and 11n. While releasing its research in September, ABI said "Established Wi-Fi chipset vendors such as Broadcom, Intel, Qualcomm Atheros, and Texas Instruments will attempt to maintain or grow their share of the market by transitioning as fast as possible."