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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.

The device is compatible with WirelessHD 1.1 receivers, too, which is great if you already own one. But the chip is available only from Silicon Image, and most device manufacturers are reluctant to incorporate components that are available from just one small source (a single source the size of, say, Intel or Qualcomm would be a different matter).

The first WiGig product

Meanwhile, back on the WiGig front, Dell has introduced the first retail WiGig product in the form of its Wireless Dock D5000 ($270, discounted to $187 if you buy it with a computer). The dock is compatible with laptops equipped with Dell's 1601 WiGig card, but the company's Latitude 6430u Ultrabook ($940, including the card) is currently the only machine that fits that description.

According to Dell, the dock provides a wireless network connection that is "10 times faster than [802.11n] Wi-Fi," but that speed is contingent on the dock itself being hardwired to your network. The dock can also drive two additional displays (one HDMI and one DisplayPort), and it has three USB ports for a mouse, keyboard, and other USB peripherals.

Before you get too excited about the potential of 60GHz networks, you should be aware of their Achilles' heel: range. A 60GHz signal can't easily penetrate walls. Also, oxygen molecules begin to absorb electromagnetic energy at this frequency; that's why existing WirelessHD devices, as well as Dell's WiGig dock, are designed to operate in the same room.

Both the WirelessHD and WiGig camps are working on beam-forming algorithms that would focus 60GHz transmissions to alleviate the range issue. Instead of indiscriminately broadcasting the wireless signal in all directions, a beam-forming transmitter determines where in space the client is located, and then concentrates its transmission into a narrow beam focused directly at the client.

Combine a beam-forming transmitter with wall-mounted reflectors, and it's conceivable that you could bounce a 60GHz signal down an indirect path--around walls and other obstructions--to eliminate the line-of-sight requirement and increase the transmitter's range.

It will likely be a year or more before the 60GHz dust settles. In the meantime, I can report that today's products based on the WirelessHD standard perform as advertised, but generally have the line-of-sight limitations described above. Dell is sending us a WiGig-based Wireless Dock D5000 and a Latitude 6430u Ultrabook for evaluation, so stay tuned for our reviews of those products.

Tri-band routers

In the not-too-distant future, tri-band routers (with radios operating on the 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 60GHz frequency bands) will come to market. A tri-band router, probably in combination with the reflector scheme I mentioned earlier, could make multiple-device 60GHz networks possible. Whether the 60GHz radios in those devices will be based on WirelessHD or WiGig technology is anyone's guess. But here again, I'm predicting that WiGig will win the day.

 

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