Chipset vendors prep 802.11ac Wi-Fi technology for big consumer push

The new flavor of Wi-Fi, formally known as 802.11ac, is not standardized yet but chipset vendors are already positioning to serve its expected market. They're also beginning to condition the customer base to look forward to 802.11ac-enabled home entertainment and mobile products, which will help meet skyrocketing demands for wireless broadband access.

broadcom 5g wifi 802.11ac

Broadcom dubbed its new 802.11ac chips as "5G Wi-Fi."

The technology's debut and market hype will get underway officially at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, when several vendors will show off pre-standard and pre-certified products to make the future technology more tangible than the written specification that defines it.

"Folks are very keen to get this out," said Kelly Davis-Felner, marketing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance.  

Broadcom, Quantenna Communications and Redpine Signals, for example, are each expected to show the 802.11ac solutions they've recently introduced. Qualcomm Atheros, which bears watching because of its influence in both Wi-Fi and cellular technology markets, has not yet divulged details of its rollout plans.

A faster Wi-Fi

As an evolution of today's 802.11n-based Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac is said to offer peak data rates of 1 Gbps or more depending on how it is implemented, compared to the 600 Mbps peak data rate possible via 802.11n. It will achieve the higher speeds while reducing power consumption.

The new technology is expected to improve consumers' abilities to stream high-definition video from home entertainment components to various devices around a home, or from mobile devices to TVs. Consumers will be able to instantly synchronize large data files or quickly transfer a movie from one device to another. Venues, such as convention centers, public hotspots and enterprises will be able to deliver data services to many more users than current technology will allow. Mobile operators will be able to promote 802.11ac to offload data services from 3G and 4G networks.

802.11ac will excel, particularly, in its use of spectrum. It will work exclusively in 5 GHz bands, offering much greater capacity than the 2.4 GHz bands used for most Wi-Fi devices today. The new standard also employs wider communications channels, makes better use of MIMO technologies and provides a higher modulation coding scheme to improve Wi-Fi throughput and performance.

Broadcom, already pushing to convert the market to the new technology, sees it "driving an entire replacement cycle," said Michael Hurlston, senior vice president and general manager for Broadcom's home and wireless networking business. 

"In general, all of our Wi-Fi-based businesses we participate in today will transition to 802.11ac," he said.

802.11ac for smartphones?

While 802.11ac will likely replace .11n eventually, Greg Potter, an analyst at In-Stat, notes that an initial price premium of 15 percent to 25 percent for the new chipsets will govern market uptake--at least initially.

By 2015, he projects annual shipments of 500 million 802.11ac chipsets. The biggest market that year will be notebooks, projected at 184 million units, followed by smartphones, projected at 165 million units. The remainder of the market will be met by routers, access points, residential gateways, tablets, USB adapters, printers and other products.

Nor is the 802.11ac market for smartphones entirely straightforward, according to In-Stat analyst Allen Nogee.

Most handsets today support 2.4 GHz for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, while just a few support 5 GHz. Yet handsets will need dual-band capability to ensure 802.11ac is backward compatible with earlier Wi-Fi standards. The added cost to support 5 GHz, combined with physical limitations like small screens, will moderate 802.11ac's uptake in the smartphone market initially, he believes.

"There's always a breed of phones that wants the latest and greatest technology," Nogee said. "But once you get past the top end devices that are purchased by very techy people, it gets a little more debatable that a lot of phones will have it, at least for a few years."

snapdragon qualcomm

Qualcomm will begin seeding the market in the first half of 2012 with dual-band 802.11n chips targeted for smart phones and tablets that use its Snapdragon mobile processors.

Qualcomm Atheros plans to step in to help fill this need. It will begin seeding the market in the first half of 2012 with dual-band 802.11n chips targeted for smartphones and tablets that use its Snapdragon mobile processors and it will transition the dual-band Wi-Fi chips to support 802.11ac as well.  

"We've anticipated that and built the capability into our roadmap," said Dave Favreau, vice president of product management at Qualcomm Atheros. 

Getting the standard straightened out

The official 802.11ac standard won't be finalized and published until late 2013, but the specification is considered stable enough for use. Draft 2.0 of the standard, which most companies will use to develop products, should be ready in mid-February, according to Osama Aboul-Magd, chair of the IEEE 802.11ac task group.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, which establishes certification requirements for Wi-Fi devices, expects to launch a testing and certification program for 802.11ac in late 2012. Some products introduced prior to that time will achieve certification retroactively. Some companies will begin informal interoperability testing in the next couple months. More formalized plug fests will begin in the mid-late second quarter.

Chipset vendors prep 802.11ac Wi-Fi technology for big consumer push