With the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) upon us next week, I'm now drowning in press releases announcing new products that promise to shape the wireless and mobile landscape for 2012 and beyond. And, as I've written previously, the upcoming IEEE 802.11ac standard must already be included among the big developments of the year. While I don't expect the ink to be dry on the standard itself for perhaps another two years, by now you know the drill: first comes the products, then the interoperability specifications based on a draft of the standard from the Wi-Fi Alliance, and then the standard itself. Yes, I know this is the opposite of the expected order of events, but that's how the world of WLANs works. Vendors don't want to be held up getting products to market by little details like standards.
This is in no way to denigrate the standards process, which remains critical to the long-term success of wireless and mobile technologies. But, rather, once it looks like there's consensus around a given standard, there usually is, and this occurs well in advance of the completion of the formalities - so much so that even chip vendors feel confident to make the major commitments and investments required to get the guts of the next bunch of leading-edge APs and clients into the hands of OEMs and, ultimately, onto store shelves.
Along these lines, Broadcom today announced their initial foray into 802.11ac with a family of chips that hit all of the major performance strata in the .11ac world. Under the general banner of "5G WiFi" [sic] (the previous four are the original 1-2 Mbps standard, 802.11b, 802.11a/g, and 802.11n), Broadcom is offering 1, 2, and 3-stream chips with 433 Mbps, 867 Mbps, and 1.3 Gbps performance, respectively. Advances in technology inherent in 802.11ac should result in improved range, reliability, coverage, and battery life over .11n. An impressive array of executives from Asus, Belkin, Buffalo, D-Link, Lenovo, Netgear, and others are quoted in the release, so I expect we'll be seeing not just chips at CES, but a lot of not-too-far-from-shipping consumer/residential products as well. Broadcom has also put up a consumer-oriented marketing site as well.
As I previously wrote, I'm expecting very rapid uptake of 802.11ac once products are available. I don't expect much of a price increase over 802.11n (indeed, such will be negligible if it appears at all), and I also expect that many of these products will be operating backwards-compatible with .11n for much if not most or even all of their useful lives. We used to refer to .11n radios operating with .11g infrastructure as offering "better g than g" performance. Now we'll have better n than n. Regardless, I still think large-scale enterprise-class infrastructure deployments of .11ac are at least 18 month away, so 802.11n will also have a good 2012.
2012 is already off to a rousing start. Remember just a few years ago when wireless LANs broke the 10 (802.11b) and then the 100 (802.11n) Mbps barriers? They're about to break through 1 Gbps! Even engineers should be impressed by that.
Mathias is a principal at Farpoint Group, a wireless advisory firm in Ashland, Mass.