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60 GHz Wireless: A Modern Alternative to Copper and Fiber Backbones

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If you're planning to allocate a significant portion of your IT budget to install or upgrade your business's copper plant, fiber plant, or microwave backhaul using traditional technologies, you’re going to want to read this. We’ve already seen how advancements in Wi-Fi technologies have largely replaced Category 5e/6 cabling duties at the access layer. Now new wireless technologies and standards in the 60 GHz millimeter-wave spectrum are expected to do the same for enterprise networks. To prove this, let’s first look at the evolution of the 60 GHz wireless spectrum from a frequency allocation and standards development perspective. We'll then move on to show how wireless manufacturers are beginning to design flexible and cost-effective wireless backbone and backhaul solutions that accentuate the positives of 60 GHz wireless while intelligently engineering around potential shortcomings.

The rise of 60 GHz unlicensed spectrum

Nearly 20 years ago, the FCC designated a large block of spectrum for unlicensed use in the 57 to 64 GHz range. In 2006, that spectrum was expanded to 71 GHz. The entire 14 GHz of allocated spectrum is commonly referred to as 60 GHz or IEEE V-band wireless. Like Wi-Fi spectrum in the 2.4 and 5 GHz ranges, unlicensed 60 GHz space means that it can be freely used by anyone for commercial or personal purposes. However, it should be pointed out that 2.4 and 5 GHz wireless spectrums are considerably different from a capability standpoint. Because 60 GHz is significantly higher on the wireless spectrum, data can be transmitted far faster. Combine this with the fact that V-band spectrum is broken into six 2.16 GHz channels, and you can begin to see the tremendous performance potential that can be had. Current 60 GHz products can transmit and receive up to 6.3 Gbps in full-duplex mode. Future advancements will easily scale beyond even these impressive throughput numbers.

That said, higher-frequencies have the drawback of being more prone to wavelength absorption by obstructions sitting between communicating devices. Common wireless obstructions include walls, floors, ceilings, furniture, and even people. Wireless propagation through objects at 60 GHz is the main reason why many are under the false impression that the spectrum is useful only at very short, line-of-site distances. As you'll see later in this article, this is no longer the case.

A much-needed 802.11ad/ay wireless standard

Even though the FCC earmarked unlicensed 60 GHz frequencies nearly two decades ago, for years the spectrum went largely ignored by wireless equipment manufacturers. This was due to a lack of any open standard to follow when developing wireless chipsets. This changed in 2012, however, when the IEEE amended their existing 802.11 standard to include the 60 GHz technologies. This new standard, known as 802.11ad, gave wireless chip manufacturers the roadmap they needed to develop and sell chips that were interoperable across all 802.11ad-compliant wireless networks. The IEEE is working to update the 802.11ad standard to 802.11ay, which quadruples theoretical bandwidth and adds other technologies such as MIMO for up to eight streams.

Outdoor and indoor vendor use cases for 60 GHz wireless

Once the table was set by the FCC and IEEE to allocate and standardize the 60 GHz spectrum, manufacturers like Commscope and Lightpointe spent time focusing on the release of 60 GHz wireless products for point-to-point and point-to-multipoint outdoor use-cases. These solutions work well for those seeking alternatives to running underground cabling between sites – or to update existing microwave P2P solutions with the latest tech.

While outdoor backhaul products are indeed a great way to use the new spectrum, emerging startups are choosing to set their sights on shortcomings found within indoor physical cable plants. One company that just emerged from stealth, called Airvine, is looking to do just that. Airvine has been behind closed doors for the last 18 months trying to perfect the use of 60GHz wireless inside buildings to help companies more easily extend their existing backbone infrastructure without wires. Until now, this is something that simply hasn't been possible with existing wireless spectrum.  Airvine reported to me that they use a mixture of advanced RF technologies such as beamforming, beam steering, forward error correction, and high bit modulation.  The promise is a multi-gigabit wireless Ethernet network capable of penetrating obstacles and extending signal range to 100 meters or more. It’s also expected that this technology can be deployed at a fraction of the cost when compared to running traditional cabling.

Get ready for 60 GHz in the enterprise

Whether your business is seeking a wireless backbone solution for outdoor or indoor purposes, 60 GHz is quickly shaping up to be the answer. For those that don't have the budget or time to run new cabling within or between buildings, wireless solutions in the 60 GHz not only provide plenty of flexibility they also offer a much-needed throughput and latency performance boost. While the days of physical cabling in the enterprise may not be completely behind us, advancements in wireless technologies as of late are showing that the writing is on the wall.