Tech Industry

WiGig's ready to save you from congested wireless networks

The superfast wireless tech hasn't caught on widely, but that could change as ordinary Wi-Fi clogs up.

Wireless spectrum
James Martin/CNET

WiGig, a superfast wireless network technology, has passed a milestone that could help propel it out of obscurity and into a starring role in VR headsets, laptops, TVs and phones.

Backers like Intel and Qualcomm have tried for years to get people excited about WiGig, also known as the 802.11ad standard. It got off to a sputtering start because ordinary Wi-Fi has been cheaper, more reliable and good enough for most of us. WiGig only showed up in prototypes and a few rare products.

But on Monday, WiGig passed a key maturity milestone with the launch of a certification program at an industry consortium called the Wi-Fi Alliance. That, along with the fact airwaves for conventional Wi-Fi are getting more and more crowded, could mean WiGig will catch on this time.

"The total WiGig-enabled product market will surpass 1 billion in 2020," predicted Philip Solis, an analyst with ABI research. Those products will include 60 million home network devices, half a billion phones and 70 million laptops, he said.

WiGig could make your computing life better when you need a lot of data fast. It can transfer data at 8 gigabits per second, fast enough to download the "Game of Thrones" season finale in about 2 seconds from an airport kiosk before catching your flight. A battery-saving mobile mode that maxes out at 2.5Gbps still takes only 7 seconds.

That speed is good enough to replace network cables today. And tomorrow, WiGig should be good for beaming high-resolution video from your phone to your 4K TV or linking a lightweight virtual-reality headset to its control computer. VR and its cousin, augmented reality, work better when you don't have a thick cable tethering your head to a PC.

Avoiding network congestion

New speed is especially helpful when conventional wireless networks clog up. We're all streaming video at higher resolutions, hooking up new devices like cars and security cameras to the network, and getting phones for our kids. Another complication: Phones using newer mobile data networks can barge in on the same radio airwaves that Wi-Fi uses.

Saturation of regular Wi-Fi radio channels "will create a demand for new spectrum to carry this traffic," said Yaron Kahana, manager of Intel's WiGig product line. "In three years we expect WiGig to be highly utilized for data transfer."

WiGig and Wi-Fi both use unlicensed radio spectrum available without government permission -- 2.4 gigahertz and 5GHz in the case of Wi-Fi. Unlicensed spectrum is great, but airwaves are already often crowded. WiGig, though, uses the 60GHz band that's unlicensed but not so busy.

60GHz radio is rarely used because such high-frequency signals travel long distances poorly. They can't even penetrate walls. That's inconvenient if you want a network that will reach from one central router to all corners of your home, but it still can be useful for in-room links. WiGig's first use in the real world has been with wireless docking stations from Dell and others that connect PCs to peripherals.

The limits of 60GHz radio come with a silver lining. WiGig sends data in highly directional beams instead of bathing a room in radio, an approach that limits interference and lets multiple devices work at top speeds. Also, WiGig signals fade fast. That means you needn't worry if your upstairs neighbor watches 8 hours of streaming video every night. Today's Wi-Fi passes through walls and floors, so a busy neighbor can cause interference on your own network.

WiGig also has shorter communication delays than traditional Wi-Fi, delivering data after a delay of only a hundredth of a second, said Kevin Robinson, the Wi-Fi Alliance's vice president of marketing. VR headsets like the Oculus Rift use fast wired connections in part because Wi-Fi's data-transfer latency imposes an unacceptable lag between turning your head and seeing the new imagery. "It would be impossible to walk around and move and not get queasy with motion sickness," he said.

Certification: boring but important

If it's so great, why doesn't everybody already use WiGig?

"The path there has been rough so far, with many delays of product plans," Solis said, and WiGig chips make devices more expensive. The Wi-Fi Alliance has worked for three years on the certification program.

The Wi-Fi Alliance and WiGig fans say the technology is poised to spread because the alliance now will certify WiGig devices that can talk to each other and to shift to regular Wi-Fi when necessary.

"The Wi-Fi Alliance's WiGig certification program will bring confidence to the market," said Mark Barrett, chief marketing officer at Blu Wireless, which licenses WiGig technology to chipmakers.

It's why Robinson is bullish now despite WiGig's slow arrival and the failure of competing technology like Wireless USB.

"You should expect to see very strong adoption of the technology now," Robinson said.

Update, October 25 at 1:37 p.m.: Removes an older WiGig certification logo the Wi-Fi Alliance no longer plans to use.