802.11ac: Gigabit Wi-Fi Devices will be shipping in 2012

Broadcom introduces the first 802.11ac chipsets at CES and networking may never be the same.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Broadcom's 5G WiFi Logo

Broadcom's 802.11ac 5G Wi-Fi Logo

To network equipment we used to drag yellow cable about the size and flexibility of garden hose through buildings' plenum spaces. It was an ugly job. It got better. Then, we got wireless networking and setting up networks got much easier. Still, physical networking usually delivered faster speeds than Wi-Fi networking. Now, things are changing. Broadcom is promising us that the first 801.11ac chipsets will bring us Gigabit wireless speeds without any cables at all.

Mind you, 802.11ac is still a standard in the making. Still, that hasn't stopped Broadcom from announcing that it's building 802.11ac chipsets, under the trademark name 5G WiFi, that will be "three times faster and up to six times more power efficient than equivalent 802.11n solutions." How fast is that? Rahul Patel, Broadcom's VP of mobile and wireless, promises that their implementation of 802.11ac will be able to deliver speeds of up to 1.3 Gigabits per second (Gbps). Now, that's fast!

Broadcom has announced four chips. At the high end, the hardware supports three spatial streams and PHY (physical) rates of up to 1.3Gbps. Even at its low-end chip's slowest speed though, a single-stream radio has a theoretical top speed of 433Mps which leads 802.11n, where even multiple-stream devices don't usually go over 300Mbps eating its dust.

The Broadcom 5G WiFi chip family

The Broadcom 5G WiFi chip family

That 802.11ac is really, really fast is the good news. The bad news is that 802.11ac's range may or may not be as far as 802.11n Wi-Fi. That's because 802.11ac operates exclusively in 5GHz frequencies while 802.11n can also transmit and receive in the crowded, but longer ranged, 2.4Ghz frequencies. Within its range though, 802.11ac devices will be faster than their 802.11n brothers.

In the event your devices really are too far apart for 802.11ac to work, the chipsets are set to switch back to the slower, but longer ranged, 802.11n and even 802.11g technologies. This also gives them backwards compatibility with your existing Wi-Fi hardware.

Broadcom, and other vendors, are trying to get around the range problem by using a technique called beamforming. With beamforming, the chipset "learns" to avoid inefficient pathways between it and its receiving device. This is also available in some 802.11n devices, but in 802.11ac it's in the proposed standard by default. The net result is that you get better speed with 802.11ac's range.

According to Broadcom, home networking products containing IEEE 802.11ac adapters will be out in the third quarter of 2012. They will begin appearing in laptops and notebooks for the Christmas 2012 selling season. Mobile phones and tablets-both crucial Wi-Fi markets-are likely to ship with IEEE 802.11ac chips in 2013. In the likely event that the standard changes between now and when Broadcom-powered devices start shipping, Broadcom promises that it will update the chipsets with new firmware to keep them compatible with the updated standard.

So, who's going to use this? In the enterprise, Broadcom expects it to replace older Wi-FI equipment and fixed cable networks. I can see this making a big change. Today, many offices desktops are still hooked up with Ethernet cable to business servers, but at these speeds will most offices really need to bother with cable? I don't think so. That, in turn, will make office setups much more flexible than they are currently.

Personally, what I find even more interesting is that Broadcom also sees "IEEE 802.11ac networks [making] possible the installation of 'satellite' set-top boxes that receive their signals over Wi-Fi from a central wired device." That's a good start, but I see more than that. With this kind of speed why not wirelessly connect your TV to all your TV video sources, for example, Blu-Ray DVD players, cable and satellite set-tops, and Internet video as well? I would be pleased as punch if I never had to wrestle with the mess of cables that currently hook up my televisions to their various feeder devices.

I, for one, am very interested in seeing how 802.11ac works out both at the office, and-boy am I looking forward to this!--in my home.

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