The 802.11 Family Grows in More Ways than One

Carl Weinschenk

The 802.11 family of wireless specifications has been a resounding success. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that these protocols are to a large extent responsible for reshaping the way in which organizations and consumers use electronics. It’s been a boon to consumers and businesses.

Of course, 802.11 is not single-handedly responsible. Little companies with such names as Google and Apple, for instance, have had something to do with the changes. But things clearly would not have gotten this far as quickly as they have without 802.11a, .11b, .11g and .11n.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which oversees the standards, isn’t resting on its laurels. Indeed, the value of 802.11 is, if anything, growing more pronounced as telecommunications grows more mobile. These standards are not in licensed spectrum, which means that most of the nettlesome, time-consuming and politically thorny issues such as spectrum auctions and fickle politicians are bypassed. For that reason, the telecommunications industry is looking for ways to more deeply leverage the 802.11 family. It is, for instance, a key element of cellular offload strategies meant to take the pressure off the licensed cellular network.

Into this generally rosy landscape come two new members to the 802.11 club – 802.11ac and 802.11ad. Despite the similarities of their names, the standards actually are quite different from each other. They also are at different points in their growth. While 802.11ac equipment is available, 802.11ad still is working its way through the drafting stages.

“The 802.11 folks always are looking for the next big thing,” said Mark Grodzinsky, the vice president of marketing for Wilocity. “They went from ‘a’ and ‘d’ to ‘g’ to ‘n’ to ‘ac’ and ‘ad’. It happens that those two are going on at the same time. ‘ac’ is adding to ‘n’ while ‘ad’ is opening new frequencies and enabling things for which 802.11 couldn’t be used for before.”

It is not a straight line, however. Indeed, 802.11ad is fundamentally different than 802.11ac and its predecessors. “802.11ac networking is focused on [broad use throughout] the enterprise and the home, while 802.11ad is focused on very high speed, low latency and high throughput,” said Srinivas Pattamatta, the director of product management for Qualcomm Atheros.

802.11ac operates in the 5 GHz band and offers about four times the bandwidth of 802.11n, said Michael Finneran, the principal of the consultancy dBrn Associates. Other efficiencies, such as advanced antenna design, enable it to increase total throughput by about a factor of 10 over 802.11n.

“[802.11ac] goes faster and does everything that 802.11n does,” Finneran said. “It has slightly more bandwidth efficiency than .n and uses a denser constellation. The big change is that it has a much wider channel. While .n operates in 20 to 40 Megahertz channel, .ac uses 40, 80 or 120 Megahertz. It has four times the bandwidth – and it uses it more efficiently.”

802.11ad, meanwhile, breaks new ground. It inhabits the heretofore unused spectrum range around 60 GHz and will provide a theoretic 7 gigabits per second of data at close range. In other words, the specification is aimed at sending large amounts of data very quickly over short distances, which is a new task for the 802.11 family.


A good deal of news on the 802.11 front was made at The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The major milestone was that the IEEE Standards Association’s (IEEE-SA) Standards Board signed off on 802.11ad (or, technically, IEEE 802.11ad-2012).

Other 802.11 news from CES:

  • Buffalo Technology announced that in the first quarter of 2013 it will add a USB adapter and two 802.11ac routers to its AirStation line.
  • TRENDnet unveiled the AC1200 Dual Band Wireless USB 3.0 Adapter, which can connect to both 802.11ac or 802.11n networks.
  • RF Micro Devices introduced the RFFM4501E, a front-end module for 802.11ac notebooks and related mobile equipment.
  • Qualcomm and Wilocity launched what the companies say is the first tri-band reference design that supports both 802.11ac and 802.11ad specifications.

Though the ways in which 802.11ac and 802.11ad operate are quite different, there is a tie between the two. In essence, they will cooperate – along with other 802.11 protocols – to provide users with what eventually will be a seamless end-to-end experience.

For instance, a person working from her office may use 802.11ad as a cable replacement and beginning transferring files from a storage device to a laptop (or vice versa). If at some point she gets up and moves with the machine beyond the range of 802.11ad – she wouldn’t have to move far –another 802.11 protocol would take over. It could be 802.11n, 802.11ac or an earlier version. The idea is to provide a fluid and uninterrupted experience that transmits data at the fastest rate possible at that moment.

In the bigger picture, it is clear that the IEEE is building a deep bench of standards that can be mixed and matched on an as-needed basis. This means that it makes sense to integrate as many of the protocols on single chips as possible. Brian Verenkoff, the director of business development and marketing for Buffalo Technology, said that an end-to-end 802.11 session that includes 802.11ad is by default hybrid, since some other variant of the protocol must be used to reach the wireless router, assuming it is more than a few feet away. “The future I hope is a single Wi-Fi experience,” said Verenkoff, who added that Buffalo has yet to make its 802.11ad plans public.  

Clearly, 802.11ac – which is available in products today – is significantly ahead of 802.11ad. That makes sense considering how new the latter is.

“‘.ac’ is a big step, but a logical extension,” said Todd Antes, the vice president of product management for Qualcomm Atheros. “A lot of companies are running in the same direction. 802.11ad is new. It’s a new frequency band, radios and antennas. Inventions need to happen. Also, on the use-case side, new use cases have to be developed, such as using a wireless docking station simply by being in its proximity.”



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