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Broadcom to unveil four faster Wi-Fi chips

The 802.11ac silicon will break the Gigabit barrier, Broadcom said

The International Consumer Electronics Show next week may be a major launchpad for a new, faster generation of Wi-Fi that goes about three times faster than current gear, with at least one major silicon vendor announcing and demonstrating a set of chips for the IEEE 802.11ac standard.

Broadcom is announcing the four chips for PCs and consumer electronics products on Thursday, a few days ahead of the massive trade show that formally opens next Tuesday, and said it is already shipping them to manufacturers in sample quantities.

The 802.11ac specification is still under development, but consumer products built with it are expected to hit the market by the end of this year. Though the Wi-Fi Alliance does not expect to begin certifying products before the fourth quarter, devices might start hitting stores by midyear, according to Michael Hurlston, senior vice president and general manager of Broadcom's wireless LAN division. Those early products should be upgradable in the field to the final standard, he said.

The new generation of networks, which Broadcom is calling "5G WiFi," will be available in versions offering speeds as high as 1.3G bps. That will translate to as much as 1.1G bps of real-world performance for the high-end version of the technology, which will use three streams of data, Hurlston said.

But even the lowest end of 802.11ac technology will outstrip current 802.11n gear, and with lower power consumption. A single-stream radio has a theoretical top speed of 433M bps, or about 350M bps in the real world. Those single-stream components can be used in mobile phones. With 802.11n, even multiple-stream devices don't typically surpass 300M bps.

The new standard achieves this performance through a variety of mechanisms, including wider channel bandwidth of 80MHz or more, a higher modulation scheme and beamforming, which directs a radio's signal. In addition, the new standard will solely use the 5GHz band, which currently is less crowded with Wi-Fi and other devices than is Wi-Fi's other band at 2.4GHz.

The improved performance should mean better streaming of video around a home, for mobile phones as well as PCs and home electronics, which is the major thrust of Broadcom's 802.11ac strategy. As the new radios can send bits faster, they can revert more quickly to a rest mode with lower power use, leading to lower power consumption overall than with 802.11n.

With its initial 11ac lineup, Broadcom will focus on chips for use in PCs, routers, TVs, set-top boxes and other home products. At CES, it will demonstrate four products: the BCM4360 three-stream chip with a PCIe interface for PCs and network gear; the BCM4352 with a PCIe interface and the BCM43526 with a USB interface, both with two-stream radios; and the BCM43516 with a single-stream radio and a USB interface. USB interfaces can be used both for external Wi-Fi clients that plug into a USB port and for internal components built into a products such as TVs or set-top boxes, Hurlston said.

Chips for 11ac Wi-Fi in mobile phones, which will need different interfaces, will come later this year from Broadcom, Hurlston said. And for now, the company is not building to another specification in the standard that uses an even wider frequency band of 160GHz for a theoretical speed of nearly 2G bps. Devices won't get access to that many frequencies in very many settings, so 160GHz products are less practical, according to Hurlston.

Other silicon vendors are also lining up to deliver 11ac components. Broadcom rival Qualcomm Atheros said it will enable its manufacturing customers to deliver products in time for Wi-Fi Alliance certification in late 2012. Intel was not immediately available for comment. Research firm In-Stat has forecast that the new standard will ship in more than 350 million products per year by 2015.

Broadcom's CES demonstrations won't be as colorful as the company's promise of better video streaming might suggest. In its booth, Broadcom will simply measure the speed of throughput on 802.11ac connections and display those numbers, Hurlston said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com


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