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Meet 60GHz Wi-Fi, the insanely fast future of wireless networking

Michael Brown | March 7, 2013
Get ready for a ridiculous boost in wireless networking speed. Two camps are competing to deliver wireless components that are at least seven times faster than today's gigabit (IEEE 802.11ac) routers. By harnessing spectrum in the unlicensed 60GHz frequency band, these devices will be capable of offering more bandwidth than hardwired USB 3.0 connections.

Get ready for a ridiculous boost in wireless networking speed. Two camps are competing to deliver wireless components that are at least seven times faster than today's gigabit (IEEE 802.11ac) routers. By harnessing spectrum in the unlicensed 60GHz frequency band, these devices will be capable of offering more bandwidth than hardwired USB 3.0 connections.

The contest conjures memories of the VHS-Betamax wars, with one exception: One side has been shipping products for more than a year, and the other side isn't expected to deliver certified products until sometime next year. Although the two technologies could coexist, I think only one will ultimately prevail.

The WirelessHD Consortium, led by chip maker Silicon Image, is the team behind the products selling today. The Wireless Gigabit Alliance (WiGig), led by chip makers Marvell and Wilocity, won't kick off its certification program until 2014, but that hasn't stopped one manufacturer from shipping an uncertified WiGig device early.

Don't worry--you didn't just waste $200 on a new router. In its early stages, 60GHz technology will be present only in point-to-point networks, such as hardware for streaming media from a PC to an HDTV, or wirelessly connecting your laptop to a desktop docking station.

Which side will prevail?

Despite WirelessHD's substantial head start, I think WiGig will win the battle in the long run. First, WiGig technology is defined in the IEEE 802.11ad standard. Most consumers are familiar with IEEE wireless-networking standards because they have experience with all the earlier ones, namely IEEE 802.11a, b, g, and n (802.11ac will be ratified in early 2014).

Second, the WiGig Alliance recently merged with the Wi-Fi Alliance, the trade group responsible for assuring consumers that any of the wireless-networking devices bearing its logo will work together. People trust that logo because the Wi-Fi Alliance has never let them down. Not yet, at least.

Still, it's hard to get around the fact that you can buy WirelessHD products--such as the DVDO Air--today. These are point-to-point devices designed to stream high-definition media from a source to a display, wirelessly. I've tested a couple of them, and I know they work.

Plug a Blu-ray player's HDMI output into a WirelessHD transmitter, and connect a WirelessHD receiver to a video projector's HDMI input, and you can stream HD video to the projector without needing to hook up a 30-foot HDMI cable. Unfortunately, both the transmitter and the receiver are fairly large, and each requires an AC power supply. Perhaps even worse, the source and the destination must be in the same room.

60GHz goes mobile

It looks as though Silicon Image, which acquired WirelessHD pioneer SiBeam in 2011, will be the first chip maker to solve the transmitter size issue, as the company has developed a new chip that's sufficiently small and low-power to be incorporated into portable devices. Silicon Image claims that its UltraGig 6400 transmitter is capable of sending 1080p video with multichannel audio from a tablet or smartphone to an HDTV or video projector. Samples of the chip are already in the hands of some device manufacturers.

 

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