The Next Generation of WiFi is (nearly) here
This time of year is when we typically see a lot of new product announcements emerge from the US-based CES (Consumer Electronics Show). CES is where a lot of deals are made, products are demonstrated and wild claims are made. Not every product sees the light of day, and those that do don’t always live up to the hype.
Just prior to the 2012 CES (as I’m writing this), Broadcom has announced availability of chipsets that support the next generation of wireless networks. Not wireless networks in the sense of wireless (paid) broadband as I’ve discussed previously through companies like Telstra, but wireless as in WiFi; using an existing network connection (or none at all) to share files across computers, tablets, smartphones and anything that can talk basic IP.
The current state of the art (in terms of what you can buy right now) is 802.11n, and that was a product that took a long time to stabilise and get ratified; for a long while many vendors offered “pre” N products with varying speeds and cross-compatibility. We can look forward to that same merry dance with the next generation, variously called 5G or more technically, 802.11ac. Broadcom’s new chips can burst at up to 1.3Gbps — at least that’s what they claim — but the as yet to be ratified standard suggest peaks of up to 3.6Gbps. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll see actual 3.6Gbps throughput in anything at all, but that’s not likely to stop wireless manufacturers touting that the new chips are many multiples faster than the existing 802.11n gear. Bear in mind, though, that 802.11n tops out at a (theorectical) 600Mbps, but nobody gets that either; there’s always network overhead, frequently interference, shared spectrum and the issues of moving away from the wifi source to deal with in any wireless configuration setup.
802.11ac isn’t just about speed. The working theory is that it should be more applicable to devices that are power sensitive, such as smartphones and tablets, partly due to the design of the mooted specification, and partly due to the higher potential speed. At least in theory, if you can send a file (of any type) across a wireless network quickly, the chips responsible can then drop down to a low power state more rapidly as well; the end result should be longer battery life when using WiFi, something that’s typically quite challenging. Broadcom doesn’t make wireless equipment itself; its chips are likely to show up under the hood of other more well known brands such as Netgear. At some point in 2012 it’s likely that the first 802.11ac products will hit store shelves. 802.11ac is backwards compatible, so it should work well with existing 802.11n gear (not to mention the older 802.11a and 802.11b equipment). At first, though, you can expect to pay high prices for highly hyped equipment, but whether it’ll last through to the ratification of the standard and work seamlessly with later 802.11ac equipment remains to be seen.