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

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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.

The DVDO Air can transmit 1080p video and 7.1-channel audio from a source to a display without using an HDMI cable, thanks to a WirelessHD chipset operating on the 60GHz frequency band.

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.

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).

Dell is first to market with a WiGig product, in the form of its Wireless Dock D5000. Unfortunately, the dock is compatible only with the Latitude 6430u Ultrabook with Dell's 1601 WiGig card installed.

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.

Belkin 802.11ac routerRobert Cardin
Devices based on the IEEE 802.11ac Draft 2.0 standard are the fastest networking products you can buy today.

In the meantime, routers and client adapters based on the IEEE 802.11ac Draft 2.0 standard will continue to be the fastest wireless network technology on the market. If you're interested in buying one of those products, see my reviews of the Asus RT-AC66U, Belkin AC 1200 DB, Buffalo WZR-1800H, D-Link DIR-865L, and Netgear R6300. I’ve also reviewed Cisco’s Linksys EA6500 and Western Digital’s My Net AC1300.

Care to share your thoughts and speculation about 60GHz networks? Hit the comments section and let us know.

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