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Hey, Broadcom: Will 2012 Bring Us Gigabit Ethernet?

We've come a long way since the early days of wireless networking. On the right 802.11n network today, you can see data rates of 300 Mbps and real throughput that tops Fast Ethernet speeds. But things change quickly in the wireless space, and after a recent conversation with chipmaker Broadcom, I can smell ridiculously fast wireless off in the distance.

Many wireless environments got started for real when supported data rates were along the lines of 1, 2, 5.5 and 11 Mbps. These are slow by today’s standards, but were enough to fertilize a burgeoning technology that became addictive to those who tried it. The portability advantage that came with early wireless was absolutely compelling, enhanced by the Wi-Fi Alliance’s world-class interoperability campaign that gave the wireless industry a unifying undercurrent. Many of us got our environments so hooked on wireless that going to expensive 54-Mbps-capable 11a and 11g dual band APs was a given when they hit the market. Wireless client device counts climbed and continue to climb, and 11n has sealed the deal that wireless is bigger than wired networking in many large and small environments. That’s the nickel history lesson, but, again, things change fast in the wireless world.

Even as many large environments work on migrating to 11n, with its cool features like rate-boosting wide channels and MIMO antennas that make the once-evil multipath effect work on our behalf, there is much going on behind door No. 3. Like most IT folks living the wireless dream, the voices in my head are very fond of asking, "What’s next?" To my delight, I was recently able to get that question answered by industry giant Broadcom, whose technical folks are in the thick of helping to shape both the pending 802.11ac wireless standard and the culture that will accompany it.

What follows here is my take-away from the conversation, and as you digest it, please remember that 802.11ac is developing. It is not yet even a draft version of what it will become. At the same time, there is a lot to talk about. To address the wireless gee-whiz stuff right away, the 11ac standard will allow for data rates up to 1,000 Mbps in the 5-GHz spectrum using channel widths up to four times as wide as current 11n uses at its fastest. In other words, we will eventually see 160-Mhz wide channels. Impressive, yes, but initial product sets will ship as "pre-standard" in 2012, at half or below what the intent of the standard supports from a performance perspective. Even when the actual standard ratifies, which is expected in 2014, products will probably not be ready to deliver on full Gigabit data rates for some time afterward.

At the same time, we are realistically using "gigabit" and "wireless networking" in the same sentences, and that is significant in and of itself. And because 11ac works in 5 GHz and not in 2.4 GHz, we will finally get some relief from device manufacturers continuing to saturate the dirty 2.4-GHz space with even more noise makers, also very significant.

Back to Broadcom, and how 11ac will invade our collective conscience. Consumer-oriented, pre-standard products will hit shelves in 2012. The unquenchable thirst for ever-more video applications and delivery mechanisms will push 11ac along. Wireless home routers built on 11ac specs will have greater effective range, and client devices should see improved battery life over earlier wireless technologies, mostly because more data is being moved in the same time slice, says Broadcom. And when 11ac chipsets start to ship, expect them to do so at a pretty frantic pace.

2012 will be the year of 11ac cutting teeth in the consumer space. Even though the Wi-Fi Alliance is expected to greatly hasten interoperability testing and certification for 11ac products compared to past standards, the enterprise faction of the wireless market will be slower to adopt and embrace draft versions of 11ac as it develops, until a version emerges that feels close enough to "baked" for the wireless big guns to take a chance on. Look for this milestone in late 2013, several months ahead of 11ac becoming official.

Obviously, the 802.11ac story will get bigger in the months to come. Broadcom and others in the industry have done an amazing job in evolving the wireless space almost to high-performance ubiquity, and 11ac is the natural next step in the journey. Consumers will love it, while enterprise IT folks will eventually agonize over why and how to migrate their large networks to 11ac. Even though we won’t get to gigabit wireless in 2012, it’s still a good bet that marketing folks will have a field day with outlandish claims of nonsensical coverage range and physics-defying speeds as early shadow versions of 11ac take root, and so the force remains in balance.

At the time of publication, Broadcom has no business relationship with Lee Badman.