Why Wigig will be a wireless game-changer

The new high-speed short-range wireless standard promises a bandwidth bonanza for users

WiGig is a relatively new wireless technology that lives in a part of the radio spectrum (60GHz) where bandwidth is extraordinarily plentiful. The FCC has allocated 14GHz of spectrum — from 57GHz to 71GHz — for unlicensed use. That’s more new spectrum for consumers than all of the spectrum previously allocated for consumers.

WiGig is first and foremost a shot in the arm for Wi-Fi. WiGig began as an independent development effort, but is now managed by the Wi-Fi Alliance. Last year, the Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying products based on the WiGig standard (802.11ad). WiGig will relieve congestion in the Wi-Fi bands at 2.4GHz and 5GHz by giving Wi-Fi users an alternative band with 20 times as much spectrum. WiGig also offers extra-wide channels (more than 2GHz wide) for bandwidth-intensive applications such as super-fast file transfers, screen-sharing and virtual reality.

Engineers have long known that the higher you go in the radio spectrum the more bandwidth there is. Why didn’t we take advantage of this fact sooner?

Challenges and Benefits

Until recently, the electronics required at 60GHz were bulky, sophisticated and expensive. The military used millimeter waves — frequencies above 30GHz — for years because it saw that remote part of the radio spectrum as inherently private and secure. However, it’s now possible to build small, inexpensive millimeter wave products using standard semiconductor materials and processes.

WiGig still faces some challenges. Radio signals at 60GHz are like flashlight beams: The signals can’t penetrate walls or other solid objects. Tiny, sophisticated antennas are required to point the signals in the right direction. The WiGig antenna (a little smaller than a postage stamp) should be installed on the surface of a mobile device in a location unlikely to be blocked by the user’s fingers or hand.

WiGig can’t do everything that today’s Wi-Fi products can do — but it can also do things that today’s Wi-Fi products can’t do. Wi-Fi products operating in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands can communicate over longer distances and through walls. WiGig products will normally be confined to applications within a room or large open area.

However, only WiGig can deliver the high speeds and low latency required by applications such as streaming a video from a smartphone to a nearby HDTV, using a cordless VR headset, and quickly transferring content from a server to a mobile device. Plus, WiGig will enable hotspots in crowded environments, such as airports, to serve more users simultaneously.

Today’s Applications

The short-range applications for WiGig are compelling. Today, screen-sharing is possible at Wi-Fi speeds using data compression. Unfortunately, compression typically entails a reduction in picture quality due to lost data and increased latency. WiGig eliminates the need for data compression.

Virtual reality headsets are another example. Headsets with cords limit the user’s mobility. VR headsets with WiGig offer a better user experience — particularly for applications requiring quick, unimpeded movement such as gaming.

Companies specializing in WiGig semiconductor solutions include Blu Wireless, Intel, Nitero, Peraso, Qualcomm and Tensorcom. Dell is a notable early supporter among device makers, and is including WiGig in select laptops and wireless docking stations. Other companies supporting WiGig include router makers Acelink, Netgear and TPlink. New tri-band wireless routers support 802.11n at 2.4GHz, 802.11ac at 5GHz and 802.11ad at 60GHz.

Tomorrow’s Applications

WiGig could be instrumental in the development of all-wireless environments. Office workers often use laptops, tablets, or 2-in-1 devices that they can take home or on the road.

When at their desks, they want to use the larger display, local area network and various peripherals at their disposal. WiGig is the first wireless standard that can handle all of their communication needs. However, USB-C can also handle all of their communication needs and charge their mobile device at the same time.

According to Dell, an all-wireless solution in the office requires both WiGig and wireless charging. Dell’s new Latitude 7285 (a 2-in-1 device that can be used as either a laptop or a tablet) and the Dell Wireless Dock support wireless operation. Add a charging pad supporting WiTricity’s magnetic resonance standard, and you have an all-wireless solution.

Conference rooms are an even more compelling use case. Users may want to connect to projectors, the office LAN and each other. WiGig would eliminate the need for cables and different types of connectors. Users are typically in conference rooms for shorter periods, so wireless charging would be optional. Only WiGig has the bandwidth to handle all of the communication tasks simultaneously.

In the future, mobile devices may not have any connectors. All short-range communication could be handled by WiGig, with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth included to support legacy devices (which will likely be around for a long time).

Charging will also be wireless, though the location of the device being charged will be less critical. While today’s wireless charging typically requires exact placement of the mobile device on a charging pad, solutions are under development that could allow charging devices anywhere on a table or even anywhere in a modest-size room.

There is one more compelling reason to use WiGig: privacy. WiGig is attractive for mission-critical applications (such as on the factory floor) because it offers exceptional bandwidth using signals that can’t easily escape the building.

As WiGig matures, it could even find use in smart homes. For instance, WiGig could be used within the home to remotely control smart locks.

Future Potential

The success of WiGig will depend on several factors. As with any new communication standard, there will need to be a critical mass of products supporting WiGig, particularly infrastructure devices such as routers, HDTVs and desktop PCs. Practical antennas must be developed for handheld devices such as smartphones.

Improvements in performance will allow WiGig to be used over greater distances and where there isn’t continuous line-of-sight access. WiGig can support speeds of 2Gbps to 3Gbps per second at 30 feet today, with even higher speeds and longer distances possible in the future.

The history of Wi-Fi offers a good reason to be optimistic about WiGig. The first wireless LAN products were introduced in the early 1990s. They were slow, bulky and expensive. Back then, you could buy proprietary wireless LAN products that ran about 100Kbps and cost about $1,000 per device. Fortunately, there were some mission-critical vertical applications that absolutely had to have wireless. Over the following years, the industry developed wireless LAN products that were faster, smaller and less expensive. The first Wi-Fi standard (802.11b) was published in 1999.

All in all, it took about 10 years for the wireless LAN market to finally take off. Given how much bandwidth WiGig offers, there is plenty of incentive to improve WiGig’s performance and reduce its cost. As Wi-Fi proved (and continues to prove), persistence pays off.

There is one more reason to be optimistic about WiGig: It appears clear now that millimeter wave technology will play a big role in 5G mobile networks. Therefore, it’s not unrealistic to expect billions of smartphones (and other devices) featuring WiGig. That means hordes of engineers working on ways to boost WiGig’s performance — and penny-conscious handset makers doing everything they can to squeeze out costs.

WiGig won’t happen overnight. But one day you just might wake up and find WiGig is everywhere.

This post is based on commentary by Ira Brodsky that first appeared at Computerworld. Brodsky is a Senior Analyst with Datacomm Research and is the author of five books about technology. Brodsky focuses on mobile solutions for payments, retail automation, and health care.