I’m sure by now you’ve heard about products based on the upcoming IEEE 802.11ac standard appearing in the market – mostly residential-class routers offering up to 1.3 Gbps (peak) throughput. But there’s yet another gigabit-class wireless-LAN standard from the IEEE, called 802.11ad. Unlike .11ac, .11ad is now a ratified standard, and products based on the standard are also beginning to appear. But there’s a lot of confusion surrounding 802.11ad that positions it as specialized or limited. Such really isn’t the case, and .11ad is worthy of both your attention and your consideration.
Why? Because .11ad operates in the 60-GHz. bands, which provision between seven and nine gigahertz of spectrum depending upon the rules of a specific country – many times that of the 5-GHz. band where 802.11ac operates regardless. A potential drawback is that signals at those frequencies are limited in range and quite directional, but fear not – advances in the core technologies required to build radios operating at those frequencies promise a spot for .11ad in personal-area connections, virtual docking stations, wireless HDMI and other video cable replacements, and, yes, both residential and enterprise wireless LANs as well. And, oh yes, we’re talking 7 Gbps here – not too shabby. You may recall that 802.11ac can also in theory reach those levels of performance, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing such products for many years, if ever, due to the complexity and cost involved.
In addition to the ratification of the standard itself, there have been a number of interesting announcements regarding 802.11ad in recent weeks. First, the trade association at the center of the 60 GHz. universe, the Wireless Gigabit Alliance, or WiGig, is merging with the Wi-Fi Alliance. I’ve in the past observed that WiGig seemed to be more focused more on wireless PAN (personal-area network) applications of 60 GHz., more the province of IEEE 802.15 and the 802.15.3c-2009 standard than 802.11ad. I’m unaware of any 15.3c products, but the Wi-Fi Alliance is decidedly focused on wireless LANs, so my expectations for real network/IP-oriented wireless LANs at 60 GHz. have risen recently.
60-GHz. industry leader Wilocity announced the first .11ad products in conjunction with WLAN industry leader Qualcomm Atheros. The firms showed off a tri-band (2.4, 5, and 60 GHz.) reference design at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which includes both .11ac and .11ad in a single implementation. Will such become common? I think it will. Notebook leader Dell has already announced the Latitude 6430u Ultrabook, which features Wilocity’s Tri-band chipset.
So, should you take the 802.11ad plunge? Well, just as is the case with 802.11ac at the moment, the range of products available on the market is fairly limited. While that’s always the case with new technologies, .11ad today is clearly just for early adopters and IT technical staff who want or need to become familiar with the technology. Apart from that, the usual pushback of “no one needs 7 Gbps of throughput” will appear regularly in the press. As was the case with all of the major advances in wireless LANs throughout their history, anyone making such an argument is missing the point – it’s not about throughput, but rather about capacity. The faster a given user gets his or her traffic on and off the air reliably, the more time, and thus capacity, is left for everyone else. 60 GHz. will also get dinged because of (anticipated or perceived) limited range, although, to be fair, we really don’t have good estimates of rate vs. range performance at present. But keep in mind that limiting the range between the endpoints of any wireless connection to a minimum is always the best way to ensure throughput and reliability. And we suspect, based on our own experiments here with 60 GHz. wireless products of various forms, that today’s open-office environments will be a good fit with 60 GHz. Users won’t have to learn anything new, and all that high performance will simply be appreciated.
So, is 802.11ad in your future? I think it is. There’s no big rush, and it’s unlikely that any meaningful competition will develop between 802.11ac, which will become the mainstream technology, and .11ad, which will become the favorite of power users and many who are completely unaware that they’re using it in more personal applications. But it’s not too early to add 802.11ad to your to-do list, and, of course, marvel and the continuing advances in technology that continue to make mobility the center of today’s IT universe.
By Craig Mathias
Craig J. Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, a wireless and mobile advisory firm in Ashland, Mass. Founded in 1991, the company works with manufacturers, network operators, enterprises and the financial community on technology assessment and analysis, strategy development, product design and marketing, education, training and the integration of emerging technologies into business operations.
Craig, an internationally recognized expert on wireless communications and mobile computing technologies, is a well-known and often-quoted industry analyst and frequent speaker at industry conferences and events. He is a member of the advisory board for Interop, chairs the conference’s wireless and mobility track and also co-chairs the 2012 Mobile Connect conference, plus blogs and writes columns for several publications and websites. Craig holds an Sc.B. degree in applied mathematics/computer science from Brown University and is a member of the IEEE and the Society of Sigma Xi.