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Wilocity: 60GHz wireless revolution begins at CES

A startup hopes to fire up the imaginations of future customers with 802.11ad networking products that eventually could sweep away today's cables and turn smartphones into PCs.

Wilocity's chip for 802.11ad wireless communications at 60GHz is paired with a Qualcomm Atheros chip for more conventional 802.11n networking.
Wilocity's chip for 802.11ad wireless communications at 60GHz is paired with a Qualcomm Atheros chip for more conventional 802.11n networking.

If all goes according to Wilocity's plan, the startup's dream of high-speed wireless networking will take a crucial step toward reality in January.

That's because Wilocity, which is leading the charge for next-generation technology called 802.11ad designed to reach 7 gigabits per second over short distances, plans to show off a variety of devices using its technology at the mammoth CES trade show that month.

"We'll be able to show you what your life would be like on 60GHz," said Mark Grodzinsky, Wilocity's vice president of marketing. He predicts that the first devices to use Wilocity's 802.11ad chips will be notebooks, Ultrabooks, tablets, and docking stations that can connect those devices to peripherals such as displays.

These devices will be a key moment for the future of 802.11ad. In Wilocity's dream, the company will excite people about the possibilities of wireless networking that's faster than what typical computers today can do with a wired connection. For example, a smartphone carried into the office could connect to a keyboard, mouse, and large display. A tablet carried into the den could become a controller for a game shown on the big-screen TV.

Or, if Wilocity's dream turns to a nightmare, people could just yawn. Novelty doesn't guarantee success, as Wireless USB and other duds have shown. And communication protocols are particularly hard to popularize since success depends on support from a wide range of devices.

It'll be possible to start seeing whether the dream is becoming reality later next year, when the company expects the first products to go on sale.

"Our goal is [to have] end-customer products on the shelf by mid-2012," Grodzinsky said last week of Wilocity, which was founded in 2007 with a core team from Intel.

"We'll be the ones out there in 2012. I don't expect to see anybody else shipping in 2012," Grodzinsky said.

A standard in the making
802.11ad, although not a final standard, is on its way to becoming one at the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), which for decades has hammered out new network technologies. By using the abundance of uncluttered spectrum in the high-frequency 60GHz range, 802.11ad will be able to transmit data much faster than today's 802.11n technology that uses 2.4GHz and 5GHz.

It wasn't easy getting to today's wireless networking technology, though. With 802.11g, Broadcom dominated the market for chips, Grodzinsky said, a situation that didn't please competitors. Its sequel, 802.11n, was bogged down as those competitors jockeyed over the standard, which took seven years to complete.

"This time, we learned from 11g and 11n," he said, and backers such as Broadcom, Qualcomm Atheros, Intel, Microsoft, Marvel, Cisco, Samsung and Wilocity have joined a consortium called the WiGig Alliance to cooperate. Now IEEE is working on the standard and has made more progress at this point on 802.11ad than it had at this stage of 802.11n's lifetime.

WiGig Alliance logo

"All the silicon vendors have gotten together," Grodzinsky said, and they've progressed enough that in October they held a "plugfest" to make sure their chips could work together. "Hopefully because [WiGig addressed interoperability] early, we'll skip the hiccups and go straight to volume."

802.11ad also piggybacks on existing efforts such as the Wi-Fi Alliance's Wi-Fi Direct technology, which lets 802.11 devices--say, a camera and a smartphone--connect without relying on a home network.

How fast is it?
The technology is designed to reach speeds of 7 gigabits per second, though Wilocity's first chips reach just 4Gbps. That compares to a theoretical 802.11n maximum of 600Mbps, but in practice even high-end 802.11n consumer products only reach half of that.

The 802.11ad technology uses directional communications. Instead of bathing a room or a house in a wireless signal, 802.11ad technology sets up specific channels between devices' antennas. That minimizes interference.

Grodzinsky also argues that 802.11ad will have power consumption advantages. Unlike with 802.11n, for example, dialing down the 802.11ad data transfer speed by half will cut power consumption by more than half.

But there's no free lunch: 802.11ad works only over short distances. For practical purposes, that means within a room.

That distance limitation means 802.11ad is a lousy replacement for existing standards such as 802.11g, 802.11n, and the forthcoming 802.11ac, all of which can generally reach throughout a house. But that doesn't mean that 802.11ad is useless.

What's it good for?
There are two ways that Wilocity and its allies in the WiGig Alliance developing 802.11ad hope the technology will be useful.

First, 802.11ad will be paired with lower-frequency wireless networks, so devices that are close together can use the high-speed connections, Grodzinsky said, and devices can switch from one to the other behind the scenes without interrupting people's network use.

That's pretty important, since it offers a speed boost in some cases but a safe fallback otherwise. In other words, this scenario extends existing wireless network technology; customers paying a premium over 802.11n devices would be betting on its utility but not replacing more conventional wireless networking.

"We're not saying 60GHz will replace the home network. You'll still have 802.11n for the home network. 60GHz will be in-room or adjacent-room technology," Grodzinsky said. In Wilocity's case the 802.11n link is provided through a partnership with Qualcomm Atheros technology; Grodzinsky sees a natural evolution to 802.11ac as that technology matures as an 802.11ad partner.

Second--and this is the more dramatic idea when it comes to its utility--802.11ad adherents hope the technology will rid the world of some cables. Wilocity's data-transfer 4Gbps speeds is fast enough to transmit video and has low enough communication delays that it can be used for interactive tasks.

So, for example, a business traveler could bring his laptop back into the office and start using it with a large monitor, an external keyboard, and a mouse. Or a student could bring her laptop back to the dorm and it would automatically start backing up her data to a local hard drive. A tablet could transform into a device with a physical keyboard and mouse--and rapidly sync new video, photos, and music with a PC with no cable.

"I think in 2012 and 2013 people will be demanding it," Grodzinsky said.

One thing 802.11ad won't fix is the relatively slow connections to the Internet that are slower even than 802.11g. So the technology shouldn't be expected to make streaming video or cloud-based backup services any better.

But Wilocity is betting it'll still be useful for connecting the ever-larger number of devices in the home and office. The ultimate measure of its success will be the replacement of the USB, HDMI, VGA, DisplayPort, eSATA, FireWire, and even Thunderbolt cables that link current devices.

"The great thing about 60GHz is that it's such a broad wireless technology that I can pretty much replicate any wire today," Grodzinksky said.