The story of Wi-Fi, like many other technologies so vital today they’re taken for granted, begins inauspiciously. The precursor to the 802.11 standard was developed jointly by NCR Corporation and AT&T in 1991, and was intended for use in cashier systems. It didn’t take very long for the industry to realize the potential of wireless local area networking (WLAN) and the Wi-Fi router was born.
For more than a decade, Wi-Fi lived chiefly on two wavebands: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. This has worked fine for the most part, but increasingly, issues such as interference and the need for higher throughput demand something new. Enter WiGig, or the 802.11ad standard.
“I sort of compare Wi-Fi to a restaurant where everyone always talks loud: It doesn’t matter how loud you speak, there’s always another person next to you that’s going to speak louder,” said Ali Sadri, Intel’s senior director of standards and founder of the movement behind WiGig. “We realized that the physics of lower frequencies and the interference generated by multiple Wi-Fi devices means we’re not going to have a reliable connection.”
The 60 GHz Solution
Sadri believes the solution to this lies in the unlicensed 60 GHz waveband as well as a signal processing technique known as beamforming.
“Imagine I’m putting a little funnel or straw to your ear, and I’m speaking to you through the straw, so only you will hear what I say and not the people around you. That’s how beamforming operates,” Sadri explained.
Beamforming can be adapted for legacy Wi-Fi use as well, but Sadri says the required antennas would measure 5 cm each, whereas the size on a 60 GHz solution shrinks down to 2.5 mm. The technique allows WiGig to partially overcome the persistent problem of high-frequency, fragile signals that don’t travel very far.
The key advantage to using the higher, and less cluttered, frequency is speed. WiGig can transfer data at up to 7 gigabytes per second (Gbps), many times faster than Wi-Fi (802.11n).
WiGig vs. WirelessHD
WiGig isn’t being developed in a vacuum. Microsoft, Qualcomm Atheros, MediaTek, Intel, Cisco and several other companies serve on the board of the WiGig Alliance and are keenly aware of competing standards such as WirelessHD. Some have positions in both camps. In fact, Intel was an early backer of that technology too. Like WiGig, WirelessHD is led by a consortium that includes Dell and Toshiba. One of the most prominent examples of the technology can be found in the high-end Alienware M17x gaming laptop. Though WirelessHD has proven to be a powerful solution for wireless video transmission, Intel eventually opted to back away from the project and instead put its weight behind the more versatile WiGig standard.
“We were hoping for WirelessHD to develop a comprehensive 60 GHz solution. It didn’t take too long until we realized it’s a video-only application, and that’s why we decided to create the WiGig Alliance,” Sadri said. “We didn’t want to design a system for a very niche market. We wanted a comprehensive standard to support comprehensive platforms.”
The competition between the next-generation wireless standard roughly parallels the VHS-Betamax wars of the decades past. Sony introduced Beta in 1974 and expected to beat out JVC’s VHS on superior quality. Consumers, however, keyed in on the tape that could record the most, not the best.
Intel for its part, also heavily backed WiMax as a last mile broadband alternative to cable and DSL, then eventually shifted to LTE when it became clear that many of the major carriers were backing the competing alternative.
Although WiGig is mostly used as a wireless docking solution for display peripherals at the moment, this has been a calculated maneuver to demonstrate the merits of the technology – that it can complement Wi-Fi before scaling up to become its next-generation successor. To that end, WiGig has also been designed to be backwards compatible with solutions operating on the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz wavebands. WirelessHD has not.
Other standards such as WHDI are for more specialized applications, such as delivery of uncompressed high-definition video.
The WiGig Alliance has since been absorbed by the Wi-Fi Alliance, which bodes well for its eventual mainstream adoption. Sadri says that WiGig-enabled consumer devices will begin rolling out by the end of 2014.