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11ac chip with NFC, Bluetooth unveiled by Marvell

The next generation of Wi-Fi -- the superfast IEEE 802.11ac standard -- will integrate a range of wireless technologies on the same chip, as Marvell showed this week at Taiwan's giant annual Computex show. The semiconductor vendor announced a chip that will include 11ac with Bluetooth and near-field communications (NFC).

The integrated system-on-a-chip, part of Marvell's Avastar line, will reduce components, costs and time to market for the consumer mobile devices that are the product's target market, according to Bart Giordano, director of product marketing at Marvell, of Santa Clara. More importantly for end users, the chip's two 11ac data streams will deliver a data rate of over 860Mbps, compared to 300Mbps for a comparable 11n chip.

BACKGROUND: Speedy 802.11ac Wi-Fi set for fast, wide rollout

In both cases, useable throughput is about one-third to one-half less. Even so, 11ac represent a huge boost for Wi-Fi connectivity. [For the high end of today's three-stream 11n products, see Network World's Clear Choice Test on "Three-stream Wi-Fi hits the mark"] 

The speed of 11ac should impact the efficiency and capacity of Wi-Fi connections. "I can transport data two times as efficiently [compared to 11n], so I spend less time on the [Wi-Fi] link transmitting or receiving," Giordano says. That can translate into more availability and capacity for clients.

As with announced plans for rival products, the Marvell 11ac chip will connect with the full range of existing Wi-Fi radios.

NFC is a very short-range wireless technology that's used in an array of computerized smartcards, generally for what's called "contactless" transactions: A card or other NFC-equipped device, like a smartphone, can be waved near a reader, and a bank account or other payment system is triggered to make an electronic purchase. It's long been touted as the basis of using a cellphones as electronic or mobile wallets.

But Marvell sees its first really widespread use, and that of Bluetooth 4.0, as companion technologies for Wi-Fi, to make Wi-Fi connections as seamless and effortless as cellular. Both NFC and Bluetooth can be used as "out-of-band" channels to set up and authenticate Wi-Fi connections, for example between two handsets.

"Today, the user has to search for a network, enter a pass phrase and so on," says Giordano. "With NFC, you just bring the smartphone near the connection, and the out-of-band NFC channel can be used to authenticate and then pair them."

Bluetooth is finding a growing role in consumer electronics, as a radio alternative to infrared, according to Giordano. In home media centers, Bluetooth can provide connectivity for remote control devices, 3D glasses, and an array of audio streaming applications. Here again, NFC could be used to pair these devices automatically without user input.

Marvell is aiming the new Avastar chip at ultralight devices based on both Intel and AMD processors, including the expected deluge of Windows 8 ultrabooks and tablets. Home digital entertainment gear including gaming consoles, flat panel TVs and other media devices are all prime targets for the new silicon.

The new chip with two spatial streams will deliver 867Mbps, which Marvell claims is not only three times faster than two-stream 11n, but six times faster than LTE. The chip supports both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, though 11ac itself requires the higher frequency. Marvell has cut the costs of the bill of materials by 75% compared to the previous chip model, and reduced its size by 40%.

Another Wi-Fi standard supported in the new chip is 802.11v, an integrated Wi-Fi location technique: It measures the "flight time" of packets from a client radio to the AP and then uses this to calculate location within a diameter of about 9 feet.

Marvell will begin sampling the new chip in July, with full production scheduled to start in 2013 and ramp up. The Wi-Fi Alliance currently plans to begin interoperability testing and certification for 11ac products by the end of Q1 2013, based on the nearly final IEEE document. Giordano predicts the first Wi-Fi-certified 11ac retail products will begin appearing in mid-2013.

Initially, chips such as this one from Marvell will be more costly than comparable two-stream 11n chips, sometimes as much as two times the price. That may be reflected in higher retail prices. But Giordano says the price difference between 11n and 11ac single-chip products will quickly fall as production lines increase their output.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: @johnwcoxnww Email: [email protected] Blog RSS feed: http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/2989/feed

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