Qualcomm enters gigabit Wi-Fi race
Announces 802.11ac chips for all classes of equipment, but Snapdragon integration will make handsets its natural base
Published: 26 February, 2012
The latest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac, was a highlight of the recent Consumer Electronics Show, and it will also play a starring role at Mobile World Congress, since Wi-Fi is now becoming a critical technology for mobile operators as well as the consumer device industry. Broadcom and specialists like Redpine kicked off the announcements of 11ac silicon, and Qualcomm is following this week with a series of gigabit Wi-Fi chips targeting four product sectors - handsets, PCs and tablet, consumer devices such as smart TVs, and broadband networking.
Among the highlights of the 11ac standard are the ability to use multiuser MIMO, and up to eight MIMO streams. In reality, early chips are using up to three streams (and some analysts believe eight will never be realized). Qualcomm's offerings range from a single-stream chip designed for low power handsets, which can reach 433Mbps speeds and comes with integrated Bluetooth 3.0/4.0 and FM; to two- or three-stream iterations for the other segments, peaking at 1.3Gbps.
An important differentiator is tight integration with the Snapdragon mobile processor and this is a feature of the smart TV product as well as the handset variations. Close integration of many components is a hallmark of Qualcomm's success, and it has been addressing the challenge of applying that strength to the products it acquired with Atheros.
That purchase brought it an extensive Wi-Fi and powerline range, which is now being woven tightly into the mainstream product range, as Qualcomm also pushes Snapdragon and its Gobi modems beyond its traditional smartphone base and into consumer, networking and PC platforms. Atheros, with its bases in routers, home electronics and laptops, will help Qualcomm extend its reach, but it remains likely that Qualcomm's real 11ac differentiation will still be in smartphones, where it can ride on the huge share of Snapdragon and the benefits of integrating with it, enabling functions like CPU offload to boost efficiency.
The smartphone chip is the WCN3680 , a companion for Snapdragon, and it will be integrated with the Snapdragon S4 MSM8960 and APQ8064 processors. It is pin-compatible with Qualcomm Atheros' 802.11n solution and the vendor says it is the first mobile 802.11ac combo chip, also including Bluetooth and FM.
All the new chips are sampling now and will be ready to be incorporated in commercial devices in time for the first wave of Wi-Fi Alliance certification of the new standard, scheduled for February 2013. There is always debate among the chip vendors over whether to pursue pre-standard platforms, but Qualcomm does not expect there to be a large number of pre-certified 11ac gadgets, in contrast with its predecessor 802.11n. Most of those that do take the risk of coming to market before certification will be in the consumer retail space, where Broadcom, the most aggressive of the Wi-Fi majors in timing terms, is dominant.
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