Qualcomm drives 802.11ac 2.0 ecosystem for faster Wi-Fi, intros new chip

Qualcomm Atheros is doing its part of make better use of Wi-Fi spectrum with multi-user (MU) multiple input multiple output (MU-MIMO) technology.

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The QCA9377 chip

Expanding on its portfolio of 802.11ac 2.0 capable chips, the company is introducing the QCA9377, which extends the performance benefits of Qualcomm's branded MU|EFX technology to notebooks, TVs, cameras and other consumer electronics that are connected to crowded Wi-Fi networks. The single-stream 11ac + Bluetooth 4.1 combination chip is designed to provide the best possible performance with reduced power consumption, the company said.

The company says that Qualcomm Vive is the only line of 802.11ac 2.0 solutions for networking equipment, consumer electronics and mobile and computing devices. But the competition is coming, and by this time next year, thanks to standards and interoperability, multiple vendors will be offering products.

For now, however, Qualcomm Atheros believes it is in the lead, and barring any of the usual headaches that can come with public demos at trade shows, it will be showing how it all comes together in a demonstration at Broadband World Forum in Amsterdam this week.

"It will be, we think, the first time in a public venue where we'll have a device that's a home router with a 4x4 multi-user MIMO Wi-Fi radio talking to a range of clients that represent mobile phones, tablets and notebooks," said Todd Antes, vice president of product marketing at Qualcomm Atheros. Attendees will be able to see how the network operates in a single user mode and how it compares to a multi-user environment that produces an efficiency gain of two to three times.

Previous Wi-Fi technologies, including the first generation of 802.11ac, were based on single-user MIMO, where devices are served sequentially, with one device sending and receiving information at a time. MU-MIMO enables simultaneous transmissions to groups of devices, therefore making better use of network capacity. Some liken it to a sort of car pool lane, where cars with more than one passenger are allowed to take the express lane while single drivers are stuck in the slower lanes.  

Of course, to take full advantage of the new technology, it needs to be in both infrastructure and device. Qualcomm Atheros did an initial launch of the multi-user Wi-Fi family back in April, offering a set of Wi-Fi radios targeting the infrastructure market as well as client devices such as phones, tablets, PCs and other consumer electronics. Antes said Qualcomm has been aggressive in getting the MU-receive hardware in many of its phone and tablet chipsets, and those have been shipping for about a year.

"Some of our customers will be able to turn on multi-user receive by simply adding or upgrading firmware in their phone or in their tablet to turn on this feature," he said. "That can be a very rapid time to market. Other customers who are building brand new devices, we have a range of single antenna and dual-antenna Wi-Fi radios, depending on their price performance needs."

The demo in Amsterdam is being conducted with AVM, a large European router supplier that is including MU-MIMO in its Fritz boxes. While Qualcomm demonstrated MU-MIMO earlier this year, this is the first demo that AVM is conducting with Qualcomm live over the air.

As for products already shipping in this family, "our plan is to provide our customers with a software update that enables the MU-MIMO features on those chipsets," Antes said. It's up to customers whether they push that out to their existing clients or carriers or build it into the next revision of their handset product, but "it's technically possible that there are customers today that have a phone and sometime in the next three to six months, they will be offered a software update that could be pushed to them to enable this MU receive capability."

While enterprises tend to be more conservative, in the case of MU-MIMO, they're being quite assertive in accelerating their products to market for next year, Antes said, noting that those in the enterprise space will see the 3x benefit either by handling three times as many clients with the same level of service or handling the same number of clients with 3x better service. "It's a pretty big benefit for those enterprise and hotspot OEMs," he said.

The QCA9377 is sampling now and will be available in production quantities later this year. Qualcomm said it will make MU-MIMO software available for the majority of future mobile devices in November.

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