Author(s): Geoff Blaber
Multi-gigabit Wi-Fi has been a rising technology for some years now. The standard, also known as IEEE 802.11ad, is the successor to 802.11ac. It uses millimetre-wave spectrum in the 60 GHz band to offer speeds up to 4.6 Gbps — four to five times faster than the previous specification. Although it operates at a higher frequency compared with other types of Wi-Fi that use 2.5 GHz or 5 GHz, and has inherent propagation limitations, multi-gigabit Wi-Fi brings a large swathe of new spectrum in the millimeter waveband to overcrowded Wi-Fi networks. It complements, rather than replaces, preceding standards.
It's also been a long time coming. Although 802.11ad started life as WiGig under the Wireless Gigabit Alliance back in 2009, it became a standard under the IEEE when the association merged with the Wi-Fi Alliance in 2013. But this has limited impact on consumers, other than the time it has taken to surface commercially. Ironically, the late deployment has had a positive effect on the technology, allowing applications to emerge.
The introduction of a new wireless standard, be it from IEEE or 3GPP, is often a "chicken and egg" situation. If the network equipment is ready, then device chipsets lag behind, or vice versa. The roll-out of 802.11ad began in 2016 with the launch of routers such as the Netgear Nighthawk and TP-Link Talon, as well as Acer's TravelMate notebook with a wireless docking station. The number of compatible devices has grown substantially since then.
The late arrival of the standard also enabled routers to become established and cater to the needs of early adopters. Adapters and PC cards followed, with the final piece of the puzzle being smartphones, tablets, PCs and streaming devices. The market is only just starting to see the technology deployed in devices, but the launch of the Asus ZenFone 4 Pro phone, powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 chipset, is a healthy sign that gigabit Wi-Fi is finally coming of age and entering the mass market. We predict other devices will follow, starting a snowball effect in 2018.
Initially, manufacturers' need for differentiation will push gigabit Wi-Fi into the premium tier, launching it as a must-have feature. However, we expect that much of the demand for 802.11ad will come from the growing number of uses for the technology. They will go beyond peer-to-peer applications such as wireless docking and data transfer, which are still relevant, but insufficient in isolation.
The first of these new uses is in the connected home area, riding on the trend of growing gigabit and fibre connections to homes, particularly in developed markets. One of the main applications here is streaming in 4K simultaneously on multiple devices. However, most wireless access points aren't up to the task, and few households have Ethernet connections in every room. Once devices support 802.11ad, a high-speed connection without wires becomes possible. This also opens the door to lag-free virtual and augmented reality experiences.
The second big application is smartphone wireless tethering. This may be nothing new, but a big difference from just two years ago is the advent of gigabit LTE networks, and support from 43 networks so far. Put simply, there is now gigabit LTE to the smartphone and gigabit Wi-Fi to devices connected to that smartphone. This means that downloading a movie from Netflix before boarding a plane could take tens of seconds on a device tethered to smartphone rather than the tens of minutes it take on crowded airport Wi-Fi.
Enterprise and public networks that are always congested and capacity-hungry are another important use for 802.11ad. A substantial increase in capacity would bring much-needed relief. This includes high-speed data transfer between devices, connections to the cloud for data synchronization, wireless docking and connections to infrastructure such as audio-video equipment to enable wire-free, high-quality presentations. Public Wi-Fi also stands to benefit from high-capacity spectrum for areas such as airports, shopping malls and hotels.
The advent of 802.11ad is an important advance for Wi-Fi, cellular connectivity and the consumer. It not only helps Wi-Fi maintain pace with LTE and ultimately 5G connections, but demonstrates that the two technologies can and will continue to be complementary for years to come. It's an important part of efforts to ensure that a performance gulf doesn't open up between home and mobile connectivity. The arrival of consumer products supporting 802.11ad may not be widely noticed, but the impact will be substantial.