Wi-Fi Alliance Resuscitates the IEEE’s 60-GHz Neglected Stepchild

Oct. 28, 2016
Are you using the 60-GHz IEEE standard 802.11ad? Is anyone?
Image courtesy of Thinkstock

Are you using the 60-GHz IEEE standard 802.11ad? Is anyone? You don’t see it deployed very widely, if all.

So why is the standard so neglected? This high-speed wireless technology has been around for nearly a decade, so it’s not like it’s totally new. The IEEE 802.11ad working group fussed over its development for years before finally ratifying the standard in December of 2012. An organization called the WiGig Alliance was formed in 2009 to promote the use of 802.11ad. They dubbed it WiGig. The WiGig Alliance developed a certification program that apparently was never implemented. Then in 2013, the WiGig Alliance merged with the Wi-Fi Alliance, putting WiGig under Wi-Fi management.

On October 24th, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced a new WiGig certification program. Testing for interoperability and backwards compatibility are key factors in the widespread acceptance of a wireless technology. The new Wi-Fi CERTIFIED WiGig program should go a long way toward recharging this 60-GHz movement.

In case you forgot, or actually never knew, the 802.11ad standard uses the license-free spectrum from 57 to 64 GHz. The FCC recently extended that range to 71 GHz. With 2.16-GHz wide channels, WiGig can hit speeds as high as 7 Gb/s using OFDM and 64QAM modulation. The prime limitation of WiGig is its range. The physics of wireless penalizes the higher frequencies with more limited distances.

Nevertheless, WiGig overcomes this by using high-gain beamforming phased-array antennas to boost power and minimize interference to others. Maximum useable range is about 10 meters for most uses, but that can be longer with a good, clear line-of-sight path using high antennas.

As for applications, WiGig matches up best with video transfer and streaming.  HD TV sets, set-top boxes, and DVRs are prime candidates for fast wireless connectivity. WiGig is a great short-distance cable replacement. That makes it useful for docking stations, digital/video cameras, and wireless USB dongles. With its very low latency, it should be a big hit for use with wireless virtual reality headsets.

WiGig will also show up in access points in highly dense areas of use—e.g., stadiums, public spaces, and crowded organizations. Its full backward compatibility with all 2.4- and 5-GHz Wi-Fi versions will let WiGig adopters maximize data access speeds under any condition. Also look for WiGig to be used for metropolitan backhaul replacing fiber in some systems.

As for vendors, chipsets are made by Broadcom, Intel, Marvell, MediaTek, Peraso, and Qualcomm Atheros. Others are expected to jump in as momentum builds. Access point vendors so far are AceLink, Netgear, and TP-Link. More are expected. You will also see WiGig integrated into some laptops and smartphones. Dell already has a model.

One interesting side note involves WiGig’s competitor, WirelessHD. This is another high-speed 60-GHz technology standard developed in parallel with 802.11ad during the same timeframe. WirelessHD, also known as UltraGig, was pioneered by SiBEAM and uses a similar-but-incompatible approach to 802.11ad. It, too, has had minimal adoption and success. SiBEAM was acquired by Silicon Image in 2011; Silicon Image was in turn acquired by Lattice Semiconductor in 2015.

Lattice, with its SiBEAM technology, had 802.11ad chipset capability as it announced a reference design in January of 2016. Whether Lattice will continue with its own WirelessHD movement or jump to WiGig is unknown. With the Wi-Fi Alliance’s recent efforts, Lattice may wish to join what looks like a growth movement for the 60-GHz technology. Market data firm ABI Research is predicting that 2017 will be a breakout year for WiGig and estimates that chipset sales will grow to 1.5 billion by 2021. With its full backward compatibility with older Wi-Fi standards still in use, I suspect WiGig will be the big winner.

 One other thing: A follow-up development designated 802.11ay is already in the works to further improve on the 11ad standard. While years away, it does provide a roadmap for the future. One big question is how WiGig will compete with 5 GHz 802.11ac products already rolling out and its forthcoming upgrade to 802.11ax. Data rates with 11ax will be similar to those of WiGig, so is there a need for both?

The Wi-Fi Alliance says the two standards will complement one another, but we will need to wait and see. In any case, thanks are due to the Wi-Fi Alliance for helping rejuvenate a technology whose time may have finally come.

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