Wi-Fi's Fast-Changing Future

Almost any mobile device you buy today either has a Wi-Fi radio chip in it, or can be fitted with one. But the still annoying and baffling part of Wi-Fi is that while it lets you move around, you still have to move around from one place to another, each having a Wi-Fi hotspot or network.

What WiMAX 2 promises

The feverish vision of Wi-Fi networks blanketing entire cities has pretty much shriveled, (though some observers think federal stimulus dollars may re-energize it) even as mobile carriers now race to deploy Wi-MAX or, as even Clearwire now is hinting, WiMAX-like Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks as the foundation for pervasive wireless connectivity.

Yet LTE will remain a relatively expensive service. Wi-Fi is becoming a comparatively low-cost, high-bandwidth wireless technology that's being embedded in a growing number of devices as well as a growing number of locations, including vehicles and carrier hotspots, like proliferating lilypads of connectivity.

Many of the most immediate changes ahead for Wi-Fi are those that will strengthen wireless connectivity as an increasingly pervasive "utility."

This week, for example, the WiGig Alliance is announcing the next moves in bringing the Wi-Fi to a new frequency band: 60 GHz. The new band will make it possible to deliver up to 7Gbps over relatively short distances, say the size of a living room or den.

That's a huge increase compared with what is now becoming the Wi-Fi standard for access points and a growing number of client adapters: 802.11n. The 802.11n radios use two or three simultaneous data streams, and can merge two 20MHz channels together. The results are data rates that can start at over 100Mbps and reach 300Mbps, though useable throughput is much less. By comparison 802.11g and 802.11a have a maximum data rate of 54Mbps and throughput in the 20M to 24Mbps range in ideal conditions.

The WGA's plan is to support a rapid industry deployment of its specification into products that will support existing Wi-Fi standards, notably 802.11n, while adding the 60GHz frequency to support very high data transfers over short distances. Applications include wireless I/O, uncompressed video streaming, high-speed data networking and the like.

This week, WGA makes its 1.0 specification available to a much larger group of vendors. Vendors that agree to the royalty-free licensing terms can take the spec and begin developing products based on it. The WGA is also partnering with the Wi-Fi Alliance to create an interoperability testing and certification program, modeled on the one the WFA has developed in the past for proving compatibility among Wi-Fi equipment.

Later this month, WGA will submit to the IEEE standards group a unified proposal to use the WGA specification as the foundation for a new 802.11 standard supporting multi-gigabyte data rates in 60GHz. Last year, the IEEE created two new 802.11 groups, 11ad for the 60GHz band, the other, 11ac, in the bands below 6GHz.

The WGA plans to fully support the IEEE's 60GHz work, but if that work bogs down, WGA plans to push ahead, according to Mark Grodzinsky, marketing work group chair for the WiGig Alliance. "We'll participate actively in the IEEE process," he says. "But we're not going to wait for another seven-year-long [standards] process [a reference to the 11n approval cycle]."

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