Coming to a network near you: Faster Wi-Fi

802.11ac and 802.11ad should be fast enough for video streaming, multiplayer gaming, and wireless tablet docking. But will they suffer standardization gridlock?

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
6 min read
The Wi-Fi alliance certifies compliance with various 802.11 standards.
The Wi-Fi alliance certifies compliance with various 802.11 standards. Wi-Fi Alliance

Wi-Fi has joined a short list of technologies such as USB, x86, HDMI, and PCI to spread successfully across the computing industry and beyond. So what do you do for an encore?

Duh. You get faster. This is the computer industry we're talking about here, after all.

Wi-Fi, the marketing-friendly term for the 802.11 family of wireless networking standards, got its mainstream start with 802.11b with a data-transfer speed of 11 megabits per second. Next came 802.11g at 54Mbps, then the present fastest standard, 802.11n with a top speed of 450Mbps.

But under development now are two new versions: 802.11ac at 1 gigabit per second and 802.11ad at 7 Gbps. Those speeds are good enough to open up a major new market, wireless streaming video, likely in 2012 or 2013.

"We think with the 802.11ac standard, we're looking at very high throughput," said Todd Antes, vice president of marketing for the digital home group at wireless chipset maker Atheros. "It's not as big as going from 802.11g to 802.11n, but it's significant. In entertainment and other places, having gigabit wireless is going to be important."

The promise of 802.11ac and 802.11ad sounds good, but fulfilling it won't necessarily be easy. The standards aren't done yet, and the history of 802.11n shows that getting to a standard can set a standard back by years.

Wi-Fi is showing up in smartphones, cars, TVs, and more. In-Stat forecasts a billion 802.11ac devices will ship in 2015, a huge market.

The broader Wi-Fi spreads, the more complicated it becomes to determine its future. The 802.11 family of standards is developed at the IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Another organization, the Wi-Fi Alliance, got involved 11 years ago, adding the slicker "Wi-Fi" label and conducting certification tests to ensure devices work together--certified more than 10,000 products so far.

More recently, the alliance has been adding a number of higher-level technologies to the 802.11 foundations. Mobile phone carriers have become active in extending Wi-Fi to enable roaming agreements for smartphone users, and three rising Asian mobile powers--Huawei Technologies, LG Electronics, and Samsung Electronics--just became sponsors of the alliance, a higher-level role shared previously shared by 13 tech giants.

What's in the new standards?
802.11ac and 802.11ad each are under development right now. But why mess around with the first if the second will offer 7 times the data-transfer speed?

The answer is that 802.11ad has significantly shorter range because of the physics involved.

802.11b and 802.11g use the 2.4 gigahertz frequency spectrum, a patch of electromagnetic turf it shares with cordless phones, noise from microwave ovens, and various other nuisances. In comparison, 802.11n can use a combination of 2.4GHz and 5GHz.

802.11ac uses 5GHz solely, and 802.11ad uses the much higher 60GHz spectrum, where there's much more room to pack different communication channels side by side.

Start-up Wilocity hopes to attach devices such as video cards and other PCI Express devices over wireless networks.
Start-up Wilocity hopes to attach devices such as video cards and other PCI Express devices over wireless networks. Wilocity

"What's attractive about 60GHz is there's lots of spectrum available, compared to 2.4GHz or 5 GHz," said Jagdish Rebello a principal analyst for market research firm IHS iSuppli. "You have hundreds of megahertz available. The flip side is signals do not propagate far at all. They're absorbed by water, by air, by walls."

Thus, it looks like 802.11ac is destined to be the successor to mainstream networking access point technology that people use in homes, businesses, and public Wi-Fi hot spots, said Kelly Davis-Felner, marketing director for the Wi-Fi Alliance. (She uses a different label for 802.11ac, VHT, short for very high throughput.)

"It's a big enabler for the digital home," she said. "With 1Gbps for the raw data rate, the benchmark I hear is you can comfortably stream three lightly compressed HD videos at a time."

802.11ad promises video, too--but it's got enough capacity for uncompressed HD video. One organization working on the idea, the Wireless Gigabit Alliance (WiGig) sees the technology as a DisplayPort connector for plugging monitors into computers.

That's part of a broader idea: wireless docking. In that idea, when a person brings a laptop or tablet into a room, it could automatically link wirelessly to large displays and to peripherals such as storage systems.

One start-up, Wilocity, even thinks it can connect PCI Express devices wirelessly with a technology it calls wPCIe (PDF). That could let a tablet or laptop link up with a much more powerful video card for higher-end graphics, for example, or to a USB 3.0 hub to connect to a range of peripherals.

Another reason 802.11ac and 802.11ad get associated with in-home video: they won't do much for most people's connections to the Internet. That's because broadband Internet connections for most people already are well below the 54Mbps of 802.11g. A fast in-home network won't speed up the broadband bottleneck.

However, in-home networks are getting more important as people rely on external backup systems, stream video or audio across the network, and play video games. Indeed, one big market push for the new Wi-Fi standards will be connecting people using different machines in a multiplayer game.

One potential problem with games linked over Wi-Fi: latency. Even short delays between when a person takes an action and when that player or others register it on a screen can cripple game play.

"Everybody in the industry is sensitive to how important addressing latency is," Davis-Felner said. "People feel strongly that is part of the promise of VHT [802.11ac] and 60GHz [802.11ad]. There's a lot more headroom to address latency effectively...I'm confident it will be better."

Not everyone is so sanguine.

"I believe none of them have solved the latency issue," Rebello said of companies working on the upcoming standards. "In peer-to-peer gaming, you need to have extremely fast response time...from tactile input to screen response. It's not yet a solution ready to be standardized and packaged."

Wi-Fi expanding presence
Wi-Fi is ubiquitous in computing, but it's spreading beyond that market. One of the most obvious areas is smartphones and tablets, but that's not all.

"The growth potential is huge," Rebello said, with 802.11n leading the charge outside Wi-Fi's traditional markets. "We're not just looking at access points and laptops anymore. You look at it going in to TVs--50 percent will have 802.11 by end of 2013. That's a huge market. Then you'll see automotive adopting 802.11n for content distribution. Cameras are slowly taking it up. For tablets, there should be 200 million of them in 2015, each of them with an 802.11 chip. Phones are still huge market. Only a small percentage of phones today shipping with Wi-Fi."

Wi-Fi Alliance logo

Sharp Electronics exemplifies the trend. It's got 13 Wi-Fi-enabled TVs on the market, with six more to arrive in coming months, said Tony Favia, a senior product manager. But that's with today's technology; Sharp hasn't yet decided whether it's interested in 802.11ac or 802.11ad.

"We are studying both but have made no decisions on how to support each one. We may choose to support one format in some models and the other format in other models, depending on the specific TV's market," Favia said.

No wonder start-ups are interested. Tensorcom is angling for a place in the 60GHz market alongside Wilocity. SiBeam, acquired by Silicon Image for $25.5 million in April, also is working on 60GHz technology for wireless video transmission.

And of course incumbents such as Broadcom, Intel, and Atheros are hard at work on their own next-generation chips.

802.11ac and 802.11ad aren't the only developments. The Wi-Fi Alliance is pushing a number of add-ons.

One important one is Wi-Fi Direct. In today's world, Wi-Fi devices can be access points that provide the network or guests than connect to it. Wi-Fi Direct makes peers out of devices, so that, for example, a camera could connect to a smartphone. In-Stat expects Wi-Fi Direct to be a standard feature with 802.11ac devices.

"Ultimately, we expect Wi-Fi Direct to be successful and that, by 2014, all Wi-Fi devices that ship will be enabled with Wi-Fi Direct, creating a one-stop shop for wireless networking and connectivity," In-Stat analyst Brian O'Rourke said in a May research note.

Standards battles?
Perhaps the biggest question 802.11ac and 802.11ad face is how smoothly they'll be standardized. Companies in the market have been demonstrating their approaches, a move that can be an attempt to steer the standard in a direction favorable to that company's technology. Rebello sees such moves as evidence of "politicking."

But Atheros' Antes doesn't see anything as unpleasant as 802.11n, which languished for years because two camps couldn't agree on a single direction. The Wi-Fi Alliance ended up certifying "Draft N" devices to get the market moving, and in September 2009, 802.11n finally arrived.

802.11ac looks better, Antes said. "There are always politics and standards, but I don't think we're at the same impasse with two completely incompatible approaches," he said. "Everybody's on the same page."