The first WiFi products running over the 60GHz band will not include routers.
The next year and a half will see big advancements in WiFi technology, with much faster routers to replace the ones you use today, and a new class of devices to support an incredible 7Gbps speed and clear a lot of the cable clutter out of your house.
The advancements will come in the form of two new technologies—802.11ac for whole-home routers using the 5GHz band, and 802.11ad for short-distance, high-speed transfers over the 60GHz band—that are at different stages of development, with the latter being on a slower track. The WiFi Alliance expects to certify 802.11ac products in early 2013, but the timeline for 802.11ad is a lot more iffy. The soonest 802.11ad products would be certified is late 2013, and even then the first certifications may not include routers or modems, WiFi Alliance Marketing Director Kelly Davis-Felner told Ars.
Many of the use cases for 7Gbps connections over the 60GHz band will be point-to-point, like streaming video from a handheld device to a TV or transferring tons of data without a cable. The ultimate goal is to have 60GHz connections co-exist alongside 2.4GHz and 5GHz ones in tri-band routers, but it's looking like the first 60GHz products won't include access points.
The WiFi Alliance has decided that point-to-point connections will be enough to get started—routers will come, but they're not crucial enough to hold up certification.
"If we need to define a station-only certification program—so not including access points—we are able to do that," Davis-Felner said, describing it as a method of preventing the certification program from being delayed any further than late 2013. "We took a decision and said, 'we're not going to wait for access points if everything else is ready to roll.'"
A number of vendors need to build 60GHz implementations before the WiFi Alliance can start holding plugfests and develop a certification program. It's still early, so end-user devices and access points could end up on the same schedule, but Davis-Felner said she's not counting on it.
As Davis-Felner mentioned, WiFi is evolving to the point where routerless use cases become viable. Separately, The WiFi Alliance is working on a program called Miracast that will negotiate connections between devices for streaming media without the need for a pre-existing WiFi network or wireless router. Miracast is initially designed for the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands but could conceivably run over the 60GHz band in the future. We'll have more to say on Miracast in an upcoming article.
Although certification for 802.11ad isn't happening anytime soon, the chipmaker Wilocity is sampling 60GHz technology to device-makers now and says notebooks supporting 60GHz transmission will ship in the second half of 2012, well before certification officially begins. Wilocity's VP of Marketing Mark Grodzinsky confirmed that the first products aren't likely to include routers. Instead, you might see an 802.11ad-enabled notebook bundled with a remote "DockingZone" that has interfaces like Gigabit Ethernet, eSATA, and USB 3.0.
Because of the 60GHz band's shorter range, 802.11ad products will be designed for transfers and streaming that happen within a single room rather than a whole building. Laptops are getting much thinner, a trend that is pleasing overall but reduces the number of ports on the device. A special wireless card for the notebook and the remote docking station could solve this problem, or at least that's what Wilocity is hoping.
Once the market has been seeded with the appropriate devices, adoption in access points is likely to follow. Chipset shipments for tri-band routers are expected to gain steam in 2013 and become a big part of the market in 2014 and beyond, according to ABI Research data quoted by the WiFi Alliance.
Although 802.11ad supports bandwidth up to 7Gbps, Wilocity's initial chips will go up to 4.6. That's high enough to nearly match USB 3.0—going higher requires tradeoffs in variables such as price and power consumption. Wilocity has partnered with Qualcomm to combine 802.11n, 802.11ad, and Bluetooth 4.0 into a single chipset.
High speed and power efficiency
They aren't the only ones building 60GHz technology. Scientists at the Nanyang Technological University and A*STAR's Institute for Infocomm Research in Singapore have been working on such a project since December 2009 and recently said they've developed a microchip that can transmit data at up to 2Gbps. That is less than half of Wilocity's planned speed, but the researchers say their technology is extraordinarily power-efficient. They have obtained 16 patents.
"Our chipset was designed primarily for portable devices such as smartphones, where power consumption is very critical … Existing solutions have achieved higher data rate at the expense of large power consumption, which is not suitable for mobile phones," Nanyang Professor and Project Leader Yeo Kiat Seng told us via e-mail.
Seng said the product is ready for commercialization, and the team is looking for phone and computer makers to install the chips in consumer products. Wireless syncing, file transfer, and big-screen display are among the various cable replacement scenarios the team is aiming for.
As noted earlier, there are tradeoffs between power and speed. "Some of the modulation schemes are faster and consume a little bit more power, which makes sense," Grodzinsky said. "If you wanted to do a lower-power product, one way to do that is to scale back a little bit."
For both 802.11ac and 802.11ad, vendors are entering "market creation mode," as Grodzinsky called it. Early devices supporting the new standards will hopefully pique consumer interest, leading to development of more products. If there's a heavy interest in end-user devices supporting 60GHz wavelength, the routers will follow.