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What's Next for Wi-Fi?

Although the first 802.11ac routers have just begun to appear, wireless chip providers like Broadcom are already looking at the next big thing: WiGig, offering 7Gbps wireless data transfers across short distances, possibly as an HDMI cable replacement for TVs.

Broadcom provided the 802.11ac networking chips at the heart of new routers from Netgear that launched recently. Consumers who buy the new routers will enjoy three times the throughput of today's 802.11n routers, enough that multiple high-definition video streams from Netflix or LoveFilm could be watched simultaneously in different rooms of the house.

But now that the 802.11ac technology is out the door, Broadcom is moving on, to technology that could offer as much as seven times the throughput of the newly-launched 802.11ac technology.

According to a senior executive at Broadcom, the company's development roadmap is actually splitting into two separate paths: the WiGig development, also known as 802.11ad; and 802.11ah, an ultra-low-power version of Wi-Fi with immediate benefits for the so-called "Internet of things".

The roadmap? 802.11ac devices throughout the rest of 2012 and early 2013, followed by the launch of 802.11ad WiGig components in 2013. Beyond that, 802.11ah devices could appear in late 2014, according to IEEE timelines.

On the sidelines of the Netgear event, Michael Hurlston, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Broadcomm's Wireless Connectivity line of business, said that Broadcom was broadening its focus.

"I think over the next few years we're looking at going at wider from an application perspective than vertically, from a speed perspective," Hurlston said.

AC, AD, AH Spell Networking Improvements

Hurlston said that the next step for 802.11ac was getting the technology into client devices: PCs during the third quarter of 2012, then TVs possibly by November, with phones including 802.11acin early 2013. While 802.11ac components use much more power than 802.11n chips when they're activated, their higher throughput means that they can be "on" for a much shorter amount of time, dropping down into a low-power mode. That means that 802.11ac components should effectively use less power than today's 802.11n radios.

After that? Adding the 60GHz 802.11ad technology to the mix. But don't expect 802.11ad to be a replacement for 802.11ac; the 60GHz technology is effective over very short ranges, probably making it most suitable for a single-room wireless solution, such as cable replacement.

"There's no speed bump on the immediate horizon," Hurlston said. "I think there's two dimensions that we're looking at: one is very short range, super high-bandwidth technology that we're continuing to invest in, that's probably nearer-term than a 2.4GHz/5GHz speed bump. And the other area we're looking into is super, super-low-power Wi-Fi and what we see is if cellular was the billion-unit market that opened up the industry, the next big thing is the so-called machine-to-machine market, the so-called Internet of things. And what we think is needed to enable the Internet of things is very low power, and much longer range."

Both the 802.11ad and 802.11ah standards are administered by the IEEE, the standards body that oversees the 802.11 umbrella standard that was recently updated to include the most recent additions to the specification, including 802.11n.

According to the 802.11 Working Group timeline, the draft 802.11d specification is scheduled to be completed this July. For the wireless industry, which has released products based on draft specifications for both the 802.11g and 802.11n generations, the publication of the draft spec is basically a green light for product launches.

The 802.11ac spec, for example, is expected to be formally ratified by early 2013, Hurlston said. By that time, an 802.11ac chip installed in a mobile phone (which is expected to launch in early 2013 as well) would be about "98 per cent" of what was contained in the final specification, he said.

"Even if there was a software upgrade, I would argue that that was imperceptible, compared to what I'm getting now," Hurlston said.

While the IEEE 802.11 standards group administers the standard, there's another side to the coin: marketing and interoperability. That falls to groups like the Wi-Fi Alliance - a consortium of manufacturers. The Alliance has already forged ties with the WiGig consortium.

In May 2010, the Wi-Fi Alliance said it would develop a next-gen spec based on WiGig, as both a next-generation wireless networking technology and a replacement for HDMI cables. SiBeam, the technology behind the WirelessHD consortium, said that it had joined the WiGig Alliance as well, and developed a hybrid WirelessHD/WiGig chip.

According to Ali Sadri, the chairman of the WiGig Alliance, certified WiGig products should be released in early 2013. Sadri has previously said that he believed WiGig could be used to create a totally sealed notebook, without physical connections, that could be wirelessly charged and connected.

The timeline for 802.11ah, on the other hand, is much farther out. Only the PAR, or project request document, has been approved, and the so-called "letter ballot" process of revision has yet to begin. The IEEE expects that working-group approval will occur in November 2014.

Little is known about the specification, only that the standard is being crafted as an ultra-low-power solution running at the sub-1-GHz range, which would imply a much wider range than the 2.4-GHz 802.11n or 5-GHz 802.11ac technologies.

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