The newly formed Wireless Gigabit Alliance looks likely to play a big role in the future of Wi-Fi, but its high-speed technology probably won't squeeze out wired multimedia networks.
The alliance, which was announced last week and is led by several big Wi-Fi chip makers, along with Microsoft, Nokia and major consumer electronics companies, said it's on track to complete a specification by year's end for 6Gbbps wireless networks. That outstrips any widely available wireless technology. But WiGig will use 60GHz radio spectrum, where frequencies are so high they are suited mainly to in-room connectivity.
Although the demand for streaming high-definition video around homes is still minuscule, according to industry analysts, several technologies have sprung up to serve this market. They aim at the problem of how to distribute TV, video-on-demand and stored video among set-top boxes, PCs, TVs and other devices. Most consumers aren't willing to pull new wires around their homes to make this possible.
In addition to high-definition video transmission, the high bandwidth and low latency of WiGig could be ideal for several applications, including gaming on HDTVs and wireless docking of netbooks to desktop displays and storage, vendors say. It might also let consumers send video from HD camcorders to TVs without a cable. Because it is designed for IP networking and has the backing of Intel, Broadcom, Atheros, and major consumer electronics vendors, there's a good chance WiGig will come out ahead of some existing wireless systems, analysts say.
Various vendor groups have pushed different types of existing home wiring as the solution to HD networking: HomePNA (originally Home Phone Networking Alliance) for telephone wires, HomePlug Powerline Alliance for electrical wiring and Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MOCA) for interior coaxial cables. There are also high-speed wireless technologies vying for position. UWB (Ultrawideband) has been adopted for Wireless USB, now shipping in certain laptops, but some of its main suppliers have shut down. WirelessHD and WHDI (Wireless Home Digital Interface), with speeds closer to WiGig's, each has shipped in home electronics products or soon will.
One factor in WiGig's favor is the movement to integrate it with Wi-Fi. A faster version of the IEEE 802.11 standard using the 60GHz band is also under development now, and chip makers and the alliance are already talking about WiGig as part of a "tri-band Wi-Fi" technology that would include 60GHz on top of the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands already used for 802.11a, b, g and n. The idea is that, as users of the tri-band system move farther from an access point, their connection could step down to the slower, longer-range standards.
Intel, Broadcom and Atheros all hope to make WiGig an extension of Wi-Fi. They are also involved in the IEEE task group for the upcoming 60GHz standard, called 802.11AD. That group is in the early stages of developing its new standard. The Wi-Fi Alliance industry group, which certifies products based on the 802.11 family of standards, says WiGig seems complementary to Wi-Fi and that as it matures there may be opportunities for the Wi-Fi and WiGig groups to collaborate.
"We don't call it Wi-Fi, because it's not Wi-Fi yet, but it has a lot of similar properties," said Jason Trachewsky, Broadcom's representative to the WiGig Alliance and a senior technical director at Broadcom. "A faster, lower-latency Wi-Fi interface is something that would be of great interest over a lot of our product lines," he said.
Intel plans eventually to slide WiGig into its Wi-Fi chipsets in place of My Wi-Fi, a PAN (personal-area network) technology it announced last year. My Wi-Fi splits a Wi-Fi client in a laptop or other device into two virtual clients. One can connect to a traditional Wi-Fi LAN through an access point while the other sets up peer-to-peer links with other devices, such as consumer electronics products. As My Wi-Fi evolves to 60GHz, the traditional Wi-Fi side can remain the same, said Ali Sadri, director of wireless PAN and millimeter-wave standardization at Intel. Sadri is also chairman and president of the WiGig Alliance.
Atheros also sees WiGig as a potential fit for its own peer-to-peer Wi-Fi technology, called Direct Connect, and possibly as a foundation for a faster Bluetooth standard, said Atheros CTO Bill McFarland. He expects to see WiGig certify its own products before the 802.11AD standard is complete. It took about five years for the 802.11n standard to be completed, he pointed out.
All three of the big chip vendors are eyeing commercial chips with WiGig by 2011, though before then, the standard needs to be finished and a testing and certification program has to be developed. "There are all sorts of things that can cause schedules to slip," Broadcom's Trachewsky said.
No matter how soon certified WiGig products hit the consumer market, the alphabet soup of wired protocols for sending high-definition content from one room to another will probably survive.
These types of networks can complement WiGig rather than compete with it, said Parks Associates analyst Kurt Scherf. WiGig could extend the wired networks into each room just as Wi-Fi often does today, according to Scherf and some groups backing the existing systems.
Wireless isn't the right tool for reliable, high-quality transmission around a home, partly because of the problems of getting through walls, said Rich Nesin, executive director of HomePNA.
"Periodically, people get very excited about it, because wireless is nice, but when it comes down to it, they're deploying wired technologies," Nesin said. HomePNA is deployed in about 2 million homes and is offered by most of the big North American carriers who deliver digital TV, he said.
MOCA is complementary to WiGig, said Rob Gelphman, chairman of MOCA's Marketing Working Group. Broadcom is one of the key vendors making MOCA chips today, he pointed out. Broadcom's Trachewsky said MOCA might be a bridge between WiGig networks in different rooms. HomePlug takes a similar position.
"I think there's still a need for wired solutions," Scherf of Parks Associates said. One reason whole-home multimedia networks may remain is that they are usually supplied by service providers, which don't want to have to provide support for wireless systems with sometimes unpredictable coverage, he said.
As for competing wireless systems, analysts say they may have a tough time unless they can get the backing of major wireless chip suppliers. WirelessHD is associated primarily with SiBeam and WHDI with Amimon, and though there are other chip vendors involved, they aren't the giants of the industry, said In-Stat analyst Brian O'Rourke. On the other hand, these two technologies will get a long head start on WiGig, he pointed out.
For its part, the WirelessHD Consortium said it believes 60GHz represents the future of wireless and that the WiGig Alliance's move is a validation of that vision. WHDI believes its technology complements WiGig because it uses the 5GHz band and can cover a whole home. There are pre-standard products out today based on Amimon chips, but once the open WHDI standard is completed in about two months, more chip makers as well as consumer electronics vendors will rally around it, said Les Chard, president of the WHDI Special Interest Group.
Complementary or not, Parks Associates' Scherf sees formidable weight behind WiGig.
"If it's got the backing of some of the major Wi-Fi supporters behind it ... it will probably succeed," he said.