WiGig reaches for 60GHz

Will WiGig become the vindication of a few pioneers’ vision or a worthy attempt that was always against the odds?

WiGig reaches for 60GHz

The entrepreneur and financier Peter Thiel likes to ask, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” Many significant breakthroughs in technology are driven by the hope and optimism of a few in the face of mass indifference and disbelief. Only after success has been achieved can the rest of us recognize the brilliance of the original vision.

Which brings us to the Wi-Fi Alliance and its foray into the 60GHz band with 802.11ad, known as WiGig. Years in the making, the WiGig certification should be launched by the end of 2016, and indeed some products are already available. As one might expect, there is a body of true believers who are certain that WiGig will transform communications, and there's a mass of skeptics doubting it will ever catch on. We should be able to see who is right by the end of 2017. In the meantime, it’s worth keeping an eye on WiGig.

WiGig uses the upper protocol layers from Wi-Fi, which will help equipment designers, but wireless at 60GHz is rather different from today’s 2.4GHz and 5GHz. RF channels are very wide, supporting rates in the 1Gbps or 2Gbps range. That’s a lot of throughput, and we should be able to find good uses for it.

But the propagation losses at 60GHz are much worse than for 5GHz Wi-Fi. This forces designs that implement high-gain antenna systems, beamsteering and beamforming. Even with such antennas, usable range will likely be from 5 meters to 10 meters, line of sight, with minimal wall penetration. And the link is twitchy: if the devices move, or people move near the devices, the beams need to be re-optimized very quickly.

Of course, WiGig proponents claim these issues are solved, and there’s no doubting that some very clever technology has been developed. But until a range of WiGig products is available, with multiple devices from different vendors, doubts will remain about the stability and reliable range of a WiGig link.

How will we use WiGig?

Assuming the technology works well enough, what would we use it for?

The obvious user of multi-Gigabit speeds is video, and not surprisingly most of WiGig’s use cases involve carrying video signals. In the home, replacing HDMI cables between set-top boxes and TV monitors seems like a genuine opportunity. At work, screen-mirroring from PCs, tablets or phones to a monitor is another requirement without a satisfactory solution. The industry has managed to avoid Miracast, a perfectly good Wi-Fi standard and instead has many fragmented, proprietary attempts.  Most of these interfere with the corporate WLAN, so getting the traffic out of 5GHz altogether seems like a winning notion.

The only notable WiGig products available today are PC docking stations. These work well, by all accounts, but docking is not enough to drive the WiGig market. However, high-rate short-range communication could come into its own as part of a fully-wireless docking solution, including wireless power. The uses expand into high-speed wireless disk access, file sync and file transfer applications, even virtual reality headsets. Those all seem plausible but are not individually compelling. But the same arguments were aimed at Wi-Fi in the early days, and Wi-Fi turned out well in the end.

WLAN companies and WiGig

The WLAN access point companies have been considering WiGig for several years, and they will continue as chip companies ramp up their technology and marketing efforts through the remainder of 2016. A tri-band access point is an attractive concept.  But WiGig is point to point, not really suited to the star-connected access point model.  And the limited range and line-of-sight restrictions don’t fit well with the current widely-spaced-in-the-ceiling topology. So, we may need to get more imaginative about packaging and mounting than just adding a radio to an existing access point design. 

Above all, until WiGig clients become part of the general device population there are too many unknowns for access point companies to make a decisive move.

No one can predict today whether WiGig will see commercial success. The technical obstacles appear to be overcome in the lab, but we need to see proof in the field.  Meanwhile the identified applications all seem niche-like or insufficiently defined, and none offers a large enough market to make a profit for the chip and device industries.

On the other hand, there is much cause for optimism. The Wi-Fi chip industry is committed to WiGig, so we know there will be a range of products to try. High-rate wireless links must eventually find a use, even when limited to short distances. There is a long and successful history of cord-cutting, and WiGig can extend that trend. As WiGig products roll out through 2016 and 2017, we expect to see novelty applications from consumer and WLAN vendors, and novelties can blossom and grow into substantial markets.

But for now, the skeptics probably have the balance. Either way, we should know by late 2017 whether WiGig will go into the history books as the vindication of a few pioneers’ vision and persistence or another worthy attempt that was always against the odds.

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