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IEEE 802.11ac will emerge as the dominant Wi-Fi protocol by 2014, according to ABI Research. Only a niche subset of 802.11ac will be single-band 802.11ac, using solely the five GHz band. Most will be 802.11n/802.11ac dual-band chipsets.

ABI Research’s latest report, “Wi-Fi Chipset Evolution: From 802.11n to 802.11ac and 802.11ad,” covers the Wi-Fi chipset market’s transition from 802.11n to 802.11ac and 802.11ad. WiFi today is dominated by 802.11n, which can use multiple channels and multiple antennas on both the 2.4GHz and 5 GHz unlicensed bands.

In-Stat says 53 million consumer-electronics devices allowed for connectivity to wireless-N networks last year. That figure is expected to jump to 82 million next year and nearly 300 million in 2015. But 802.11n maxes out at 600Mbps – not fast enough for uncompressed HDTV.

Here’s a review of evolving WiFi standards:

  • IEEE 802.11n: Increased the maximum raw data rate from 54 Mbit/s to 600 Mbit/s by using as many as four spatial streams with a double width channel (40 MHz). MIMO architecture and wider channels improved speeds on 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz channels.
  • IEEE 802.11ac: Provides high throughput in the 5 GHz band. It uses 80 MHz and 160 MHz channel bandwidths (vs. 40 MHz maximum in 802.11n) and supports up to 8 spatial streams (vs. 4 in 802.11n)
  • IEEE 802.11ad: Provides high throughput in the 5 GHz band and 60 GHz bands. The 60 GHz band is stopped by walls, so range will be shorter, but the spectrum is wider, supporting nearly 7 Gbps throughput.
  • WiGig: A variant of 802.11ad, designed specifically for streaming high-definition video. The Wi-Fi Alliance and WiGig Alliances will cooperate on the 60 GHz technology. WiGig may deliver data transfer rates up to 7 Gbit/s and has become an adopter of HDMI for wireless video connections.
  • Wireless HD: A trade group led by SiBeam, allows for either compressed (H.264) or uncompressed digital transmission of high-definition video and audio and data signals, essentially making it equivalent of a wireless HDMI. The WirelessHD specification has provisions for content encryption via Digital Transmission Content Protection (DTCP). SiBEAM was acquired by Silicon Image in April 2011

The IEEE 802.11ac and 802.11ad standards may also use of Multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO), where simultaneous streams are transmitted to different users on the same channels.

ABI says Broadcom, Intel, Qualcomm Atheros, and Texas Instruments will transition as fast as possible, with smaller vendors attempting to grow their market share during the transition.

While 802.11ad products have been announced with a Qualcomm Atheros and Wilocity partnership leading the way, 802.11ad will not reach the 50 percent mark until 2016. Qualcomm sampled their AR9004TB chipset this summer and expects to see products in the retail space in the first half of 2012. It is the first chip to offer multi-gigabit Wi-Fi, dual-band Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, which is the latest specification of the protocol, including both high-speed and low-energy operation

Because of their lower cost, 802.11n and 802.11ac chipsets with 1X1 will remain dominant until 2015, says ABI, when they will be surpassed by both 2X2 and 3X3 chipsets. 2X2 chipsets for mobile devices that can fall back to 1X1 will be indispensable to enabling this transition.

“With the exception of a small and dwindling number of 802.11g chipsets, everything has already shifted to 802.11n, and it has happened faster than most people expected. This is a clear indication of what will happen with 802.11ac,” explains Philip Solis, research director, mobile networks. “The 1×1 version of 802.11n replaced 802.11g. A rapid transition will occur with 802.11ac, but without the messy politics that slowed down the standardization of 802.11n in the past.”

Cable settop boxes and televisions will be among the first devices to use 60 GHz Wi-Fi. Motorola has a more than 30 percent market share of cable TV set-top boxes (STB), so a Motorola/Google settop box with 802.11ad may be a possibility. Cisco is the other major cable box player in the United States. Cisco bought Scientific Atlanta in 2005 while Motorola bought General Instruments in 2007.

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