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Broadcom Turns Up Heat on 802.11ac Standard With New Chips

Though we're a fair stretch away from the 802.11ac standard being ratified, Broadcom is working hard to get the message of gigabit wireless across. Also dubbed "5G" for marketing, 11ac is the next big Wi-Fi thing, and Broadcom's latest chip announcement pushes the draft standard forward.

As wireless standards get closer to ratification, life becomes pretty interesting to those with a stake in the outcome. Industry players want to shape both the technical aspects of the standard definition and hope to get first-to-market feet in the door with pre-standard hardware. Tech-minded clients follow the promised advantages of the new standard and plan for how and when they should jump in on the emerging technology, hoping that the final version of the standard is compatible with whatever they took their pre-standard chances on. And network admins and architects like me carefully weigh all of the implications and ponder the hard and soft costs of migration.

Broadcom is not new to this dance, as the chip-making giant has gone through the drill with the development/ratification arc of 802.11n. Even though we're only a few years past the 11n development drama, Broadcom is savvy to how the wireless world has changed, and its grasp of evolving wireless space is woven into the new chip announcement.

Broadcom and others say the drive to 11ac is being fueled by explosive demand for content to wireless- devices. The new StrataGX Series chips for SMB products and BCM4708 for consumer devices promise to "unleash the power of 5G" to take wireless connectivity to Gigabit data rates. That's impressive but does need a bit of reality applied, which I'll get to in a bit.

Broadcom predicts that by 2015 we'll see an aggregate million minutes of networked video content delivered every second, and a 26-times increase in global mobile data compared with today's usage. Not surprisingly, the shift from laptops and desktops to platforms like mobile devices, gaming consoles and smart TVs is also expected to be intertwined with the big usage predictions, and Broadcom is telling all who'll listen why 11ac/5G will be the vehicle that takes us all there.

In wireless, higher capacity is always good, as more users can connect with better satisfaction. The 11ac standard is expected to provide faster throughput (that Gigabit promise we need to examine), broader coverage that pushes better data rates further from the antenna, and gains in power efficiency that will be welcome by mobile device users. Certainly, 11ac is easy to get excited about, and the new Broadcom 11ac modules are unique system-on-ship (SoC) devices that pack a slew of network functionality and advanced features into a single chip. What's not to love?

Not to be a downer, but the 11ac story is a bit more complicated than 5G just being the natural heir apparent to the Wi-Fi crown. The standard still has perhaps a couple of years before ratification, so technical underpinnings could change. This means early pre-standard hardware may or may not be a good fit at the end of the development process. Also, where 11n was a compelling sell in both the consumer markets and the enterprise space because it provided an order of magnitude better cell quality and data rates over its 11a/g predecessors, 11ac may not provide enough of a performance increase to immediately drive business networks into high-dollar upgrades just for the sake of getting the latest thing in place. Properly deployed 11n wireless already provides an impressive alternative to Ethernet, and where big WLANs have hundreds to thousands of APs it may be hard to warm up to the cost and labor of jumping to 11ac.

Let's come back to 11ac's promises of Gigabit data rates. Anytime Gigabit speeds are mentioned in the same sentence with wireless networking, those of us in the business should rightly feel a little thrill. At the same time, 11n promises speeds "up to 600 Mbps" and the average client will likely never see anything like that. Wireless is not only shared media, where everyone in a cell competes for the available pot of bandwidth, but it is also a half-duplex technology with heavy overhead. And marketing folks often take the most tantalizing aspects of a standard and play them up, whether hardware is ready to back them or not.

Simply put, even if you ever see 1000 Mbps in your wireless client status, your actual throughput will be much, much less. If your traffic is heading to the Internet, you're still looking at your ISP connection as a bottleneck. But at the same time, 11ac/5G is starting off aimed at consumers and device-to-device connectivity in the home, which will certainly benefit from Broadcom's new magic. Looking forward, I know that 11ac will certainly affect all wireless spaces, but I also firmly believe it's a bit too early to tell just how.