RECENT PRODUCT ANNOUNCEMENTS from Panasonic and Qualcomm indicate that 60GHz WiFi with some significant extensions is gaining momentum as a way of pumping data at multi-gigabit data rates wirelessly across a room.
The technology seems at first sight to be of only limited interest because of its short range - frequencies around 60GHz are readily absorbed by oxygen - and the fact that the signals are highly directional. But these factors can be used to advantage and have the potential of producing a fundamental shift in the way electronic devices communicate.
The 60GHz links are designed to complement rather than replace existing flavours of WiFi, which use the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Qualcomm's product, a tri-band chip dubbed the AR9004TB, developed by its subsidiary Atheros in partnership with 60GHz specialist Wilocity, can switch seamlessly between all three.
Panasonic's version uses two chips, optimised for handheld devices, and supports only 60GHz links; but the fact that it comes from a consumer electronics (CE) giant is significant. This technology straddles the CE and IT worlds, and is yet another symptom of the convergence between them.
A major design aim was to establish a standard way of streaming HD video between a handheld device and a TV but its huge bandwidth - 2GHz channels, compared with 20MHz or 40MHz on current WiFi - means it can pump data between many devices in the same room.
This task was long expected to be the realm of ultra-wideband (UWB) links but the technology lost momentum because of regulatory issues, disappointing performance, high initial prices and fears that it would raise the noise floor.
The new 60GHz products support WiGig, a specification drawn up by the WiGig Alliance, which is backed by a broad range of companies including Intel, Microsoft, Nokia, Panasonic, Atheros, Wilocity., Cisco, Samsung, NEC, and Toshiba.
WiGig is essentially 802.11ad, the draft IEEE standard for 60GHz WiFi, plus a set of extensions that allow it to support multiple protocols. It looks like 11ad to the host device, and it supports WiFi links, but it includes protocol abstraction layers that can translate WiFi's IP packets into a choice of other formats before transmission.
This means the chameleon WiGig can transform itself into a wireless version of almost any link technology such as HDMI, Display Port, USB, PCI Express, and SDIO. Ultrawideband does the same trick - Wireless USB products, for instance, use it as a wireless replacement for a physical USB cable.
Dr Ali Sadri, president of the WiGig Alliance, said the aim of WiGig was to leverage the WiFi ecosystem while gaining the advantages of a multi-protocol approach. These include avoiding the considerable transmission overhead stemming from WiFi's use of the TCP/IP protocols.
"And with TCP/IP you are dealing with the operating system. With these other technologies you have direct access to the hardware and you don't need to worry if the OS is going to be a bottleneck."
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