60GHz WiFi takes off for cable replacement as standard agreed and industry groups merge

Paul Boughton

Developments of 60GHz wireless have been up and down over the past decade, but a number of developments in the first month of 2013 are now starting to push the technology into real applications. Nick Flaherty reports.

January saw the adoption of a global high speed standard for 60GHz WiFi by the IEEE that follows the same, well-established pattern as other WiFi technologies. At the same time the two major industry alliances have come together to jointly develop and promote the technology. As a results device certification is expected by the end of the year, with volume roll out in 2014.

The IEEE802.11ad standard is at the heart of the development of 60GHz WiFi. This allows 60GHz technology to be added to the existing 2.4GHz and 5GHz version to create tri-band devices. This is expected to drive the market growth in several different areas, says ABI Research.[Page Break]
The fact that there is 60GHz spectrum available around the world is a key enabler, although there are slight variations in different countries (see figure). This is driving a more flexible architecture in devices.

The standard divides the unlicensed 60GHz band into four 2.16-GHz wide channels. Data rates of up to 7Gbits/s are possible using OFDM with different modulation schemes. A single-channel version for low-power operation is available and can deliver a speed up to 4.6Gbits/s.

60GHz technology is more suited to short, high speed point to point connections, and the first major target is replacing the HDMI cable that carries high definition and 3D TV signals from the set top box to a large screen TV. But it is the opportunity to put this technology into a smartphone and other portable devices that drives the current interest in the market – being able to transfer HD video to a TV screen for display is seen as a compelling application. [Page Break]

All this is leading to predictions of a market of over 1bn units a year by 2017 says market research company ABI Research.

“Market growth is expected to be slow for the next two years with ultrabooks and peripherals being the initial primary market, driven by the need for ultra-fast data transfer for docking and display applications,” said Peter Cooney, wireless connectivity practice director at ABI.

Smartphones are expected to be the long-term driver of WiGig/11ad market growth, dwarfing all others from 2015 onwards. 802.11ad is widely seen as the next step for WiFi, after 11ac. Its use as a smartphone technology will be driven largely by media streaming and data transfer between devices, for example streaming HD video between a smartphone and a flat screen TV. WiGig / 11ad use in smartphones will determine its wider acceptance in all other markets, helping to drive adoption in connected home equipment such as TVs initially with external dongles and then becoming integrated in to the TV and set top box, Blu Ray player or next generation games console such as Xbox 720 or Playstation 4.[Page Break]

“We expect a significant amount of consolidation in the market over the next 18 months as the 11ad market starts to take off,” said Cooney. “In some instances, smaller 60GHz technology focused companies will be swallowed up by the dominant wireless connectivity suppliers, others will be driven out of the market or at least into the margins as 11ad becomes an established technology, but without a push from the big guys the market will fail to gain traction.”

The 802.11ad specification also adds a 'fast session transfer' feature, which enables wireless devices to seamlessly transition between the 60GHz frequency band and the legacy 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. This should provide the best connection for performance and range.

The industry involvement is reflected in the two alliances that are now coming together. In January the Wi-Fi Alliance and the Wireless Gigabit Alliance merged, with the Wi-Fi group taking over all WiGig development and promotion activities. [Page Break]

The organizations expect the deal to become final by the end of March 2013, said Kelly Davis-Felner, marketing and program management director at the Wi-Fi Alliance. Now there is an agreed standard, certification tests are now expected around December of this year, with approved products going on sale soon after.

The first product expected to reach the market is an ultrabook from Dell which is using a a combination Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and pre-standard WiGig chipset from Qualcomm Atheros and Wilocity. Here 60GHz will be used for wireless linking to docking stations with wired ports for USB devices, monitors and other peripherals. This will take the 2.5Gbit/s data from the PCI Express bus straight out to the dock.

There are several start-ups working on the 60GHz technology. Alongside Wilocity, which is working with Marvell and Qualcomm, companies such as Amimon, Silicon Image, Quantenna, Beam Networks, Blu Wireless Technology, Peraso Technologies and Tensorcom are all developing 60GHz technology.

Figure: The unlicensed 60GHz spectrum varies slightly around the world