Broadcom plans fast 802.11ac Wi-Fi for phones early next year

Its next-generation wireless chipsets will be able to deliver nearly 400Mbps, Broadcom says

Broadcom plans to bring IEEE 802.11ac Wi-Fi to smartphones starting early next year, using a chipset announced on Tuesday that the company said can deliver about 300Mbps (bits per second) of real-world speed.

The 802.11ac standard is the next generation of Wi-Fi, designed to provide three to four times the performance of current 802.11n products. The standard hasn't yet been approved, and the Wi-Fi Alliance is expected to start certifying products with it in the first quarter of 2013, but Broadcom is already shipping silicon for laptops and routers based on the standard in progress. It expects any remaining changes to be minor.

Phones with the Broadcom 11ac chip should be on the market early next year, according to Michael Hurlston, senior vice president and general manager of Broadcom's Home and Wireless Networking line of business. The chipset itself will probably carry a premium of 50 percent over a component with 802.11n, he said. But because it can transmit and receive data faster and can get off the network when it's finished, 802.11ac is about six times as power-efficient as its predecessor, according to Hurlston.

The upcoming BCM4335 chipset will include the 802.11ac radio, which will be backward compatible to the earlier 802.11n and 802.11g standards, plus Bluetooth and FM radio, said Hurlston. It will be the successor to Broadcom's current BCM4334 chipset, which uses 802.11n. Handset makers will be able to use it with a baseband chip from any vendor, Hurlston said.

The new technology uses a variety of techniques to break through to the higher speed. Using multiple antennas and multiple wireless streams over the air, 802.11ac radios can provide just over 1Gbps of throughput, Hurlston said. The chipset for smartphones will use just one transmit and one receive stream, so its theoretical physical limit is about 433Mbps, which translates into the high 300Mbps range for real performance, he said. Broadcom's mobile-phone chipset with 802.11n, by contrast, tops out just short of 100Mbps.

Other speed boosts in 802.11ac come from using exclusively the 5GHz band, which has more available channels than Wi-Fi's other band at 2.4GHz, and from using wider channels of 80MHz or 160MHz. The 802.11n standard can also use the 5GHz band, but the range of the new radios is greater when using that band, Hurlston said.

Broadcom expects consumers to use that speed for file transfers and video streaming from their phones to PCs, TVs and gaming devices. Wi-Fi is also expected to play a growing role in mobile phones through public hotspots, which take data traffic off service providers' cellular networks.

Broadcom's 802.11ac technology is already in routers on the market now. The company says its silicon powers 802.11ac routers announced by Buffalo Technology, Cisco Systems, Netgear and other vendors.

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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