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High-Speed 60 GHz Wireless Connectivity Finally Takes Off



This article looks at the latest developments in ultra-high frequency wireless systems in the 60 GHz band. A new range of devices is being developed by companies such as Wilocity and Peraso Technologies that can provide ultra high-speed, short-range data links and the industry is now supporting one standard with one industry group.

This year sees a new generation of high-speed wireless technology finally coming to market. Developments of 60 GHz wireless have been up and down over the last decade – IBM showed working transceivers back in 2006 - but a number of developments in the first month of 2013 are now starting to push the technology into real applications. The promise of ultra-high speed Wi-Fi has been around for years, but what the real world applications are has been uncertain. While there are four start-ups working on 60 GHz technology, no one wants to repeat the struggles of the last high-speed wireless standard, Ultra Wide Band (UWB). UWB offered high-speed connections but with two different specifications and no global standard, and gradually groups such as the WiMedia Alliance and Wireless USB faded away.

The 60 GHz technology used for the latest wireless systems provides very high speeds, but at short distances, as the signal is easily absorbed by water and other materials. This means the technology is more suited to short, high-speed point-to-point connections, and the first major target is replacing the HDMI cable that carries high definition and 3D TV signals from the set top box to a large screen TV. However, it is the opportunity to put this technology into a smartphone and other portable devices that drive the current interest in the market – being able to transfer HD video to a TV screen for display is seen as a compelling application.

All this is leading to predictions of a market of over 1 billion units a year by 2017, says market research company ABI Research.

Figure 1: The new IEE802.11ad 60 GHz Wi-Fi standard will allow high-speed, short-range links up to 7 Gbit/s to connect PCs and smartphones to large screens.

January saw the adoption of a global high-speed standard for 60 GHz Wi-Fi by the IEEE that follows the same, well-established pattern as other Wi-Fi technologies. At the same time, the two major industry alliances have come together to jointly develop and promote the technology. As a result, device certification is expected by the end of the year, with volume roll out in 2014.

The IEEE802.11ad standard is at the heart of the development of 60 GHz Wi-Fi. This allows 60 GHz technology to be added to the existing 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz version to create tri-band devices. This is expected to drive the market growth in several different areas, says ABI Research.

The fact that there is 60 GHz spectrum available around the world is a key enabler, although there are slight variations in different countries (see Figure 2). This is driving a more flexible architecture in devices.

The standard divides the unlicensed 60 GHz band into four 2.16 GHz wide channels. Data rates of up to 7 Gbits/s are possible using OFDM with different modulation schemes. A single-channel version for low-power operation is available and can deliver a speed up to 4.6 Gbits/s.

Figure 2: The unlicensed 60 GHz spectrum varies slightly around the world.

“Market growth is expected to be slow for the next two years with Ultrabooks and peripherals being the initial primary market, driven by the need for ultra-fast data transfer for docking and display applications,” said Peter Cooney, wireless connectivity practice director at ABI Research. “Media tablets are expected to be the next market to embrace the technology, primarily for media streaming.”

The belief is that the smartphone will be the long-term driver of WiGig / 11ad market growth, dwarfing all others from 2015 onwards. IEEE 802.11ad is widely seen as the next step for Wi-Fi, after 11ac. Its use as a smartphone technology will be driven largely by media streaming and data transfer between devices, for example streaming HD video between a smartphone and a flat-screen TV. WiGig / 11ad use in smartphones will determine its wider acceptance in all other markets, helping to drive adoption in connected home equipment such as TVs initially with external dongles and then becoming integrated into the TV and set top box, Blu-ray player, or next-generation game console such as Xbox 720 or Playstation 4.

“We expect a significant amount of consolidation in the market over the next 18 months as the 11ad market starts to take off,” said Cooney. “In some instances, smaller 60 GHz technology focused companies will be swallowed up by the dominant wireless connectivity suppliers, others will be driven out of the market or at least into the margins as 11ad becomes an established technology, but without a push from the big guys the market will fail to gain traction.”

The 802.11ad standard builds on the 11b, 11a, 11g, 11n and 11ac variant, and is fully backwards-compatible by sharing a similar media access control (MAC) layer (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The WiGig MAC supports existing 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz Wi-Fi as well as 60 GHz.

The 802.11ad specification also adds a "fast session transfer" feature, which enables wireless devices to seamlessly transition between the 60 GHz frequency band and the legacy 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. This should provide the best connection for performance and range.

"IEEE 802.11 is undergoing a continuous process of refinement and innovation to address the evolving needs of the marketplace, and there is no better proof of that fact than IEEE 802.11ad. By migrating up to the next ISM band at 60 GHz, we break ground on a new spectrum for IEEE 802.11, enable an order of magnitude improvement in performance, and enable usages that have never before been possible with existing IEEE 802.11 – namely wireless docking and streaming video," said Bruce Kraemer, chair of the IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN working group.

A version of 802.11ad developed by the WiGig Alliance industry body (see below) also specifies an adaptive beam-forming option that provides high antenna gain and a directional beam. This minimizes interference and provides the ability to adjust to the surroundings to optimize data rate and link reliability. The WiGig variant also uses protocol adaption layers (PALs) for developers to interface to specific displays like HDMI and DisplayPort as well as interfaces such as PCI Express and USB.

The WiGig Alliance PAL specification can operate on top of the published 802.11ad standard or the WiGig MAC/PHY specification.

More than 300 individuals from equipment and silicon suppliers, service providers, systems integrators, consultant organizations and academic institutions from more than 20 countries participated in the ratification of the standard in December, highlighting the global interest and completing the process in half the time of other Wi-Fi standards. Given the failure to agree on a standard for UWB, this is a very positive step forward for the industry.

The industry involvement is reflected in the two alliances that are now coming together. In January, the Wi-Fi Alliance and the Wireless Gigabit Alliance merged, with the Wi-Fi group taking over all WiGig development and promotion activities.

The WiGig Alliance started in 2009 with support from large companies, notably Intel, Broadcom, and Microsoft, and expected products on the market by 2011. Now that there is an agreed standard, certification tests are now expected around December of this year, with approved products going on sale soon after, says Kelly Davis-Felner, marketing and program management director at the Wi-Fi Alliance.

With an eye to the wireless docking station and wireless HDMI connection, WiGig had been working with the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA) to re-launch its joint working group to advance the WiGig DisplayPort video standard certification.

The group had already been working on the interoperability between the VESA’s industry standard DisplayPort specification and WiGig’s own Display Extension PAL to allow devices to seamlessly interconnect without the need for any wires, providing a DisplayPort interface without the use of a DisplayPort cable. The advent of 802.11ad now provides the impetus for standardizing the DisplayPort wireless connection.

“High-definition wireless display is a fundamental pillar of the WiGig Docking Station,” said Ali Sadri, president and chairman of the WiGig Alliance. “We have taken a different approach to the untethered devices by providing cable equivalent display technology without compromising on the quality of service. DisplayPort is already one of the most widely established display connection technologies for PCs and it is imperative that future WiGig devices are compatible. Having a joint working group is a great step along the road to full interoperability.”

“VESA recognizes WiGig’s enormous potential to enhance the user experience for portable devices,” said Bill Lempesis, executive director of VESA. “This could be a killer app for WiGig and one that we are really excited to be a part of.”

The first product expected to reach the market is an Ultrabook from Dell, which is using a combination Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and pre-standard WiGig chipset from Qualcomm Atheros and Wilocity. Here, 60 GHz will be used for wireless linking to docking stations with wired ports for USB devices, monitors and other peripherals. This will take the 2.5 Gbit/s data from the PCI Express bus straight out to the dock.

Start-ups

There are several start-ups working on the 60 GHz technology. Alongside Wilocity, which is working with Marvell and Qualcomm, companies such as Amimon, Silicon Image, Quantenna, Beam Networks, Blu Wireless Technology, Peraso Technologies and Tensorcom are all developing 60 GHz technology.

Israeli start-up Wilocity is working closely with Wi-Fi chip developer Qualcomm Atheros and in January launched the first tri-band reference design that combines 802.11ac and 802.11ad wireless capabilities on a single module. The company started in 2007 with engineers from Intel’s Centrino group and is using Qualcomm’s VIVE 802.11ac Wi-Fi chip alongside its own 802.11ad WiGig wireless technologies. The reference design delivers tri-band Wi-Fi, which allows consumers to connect to 60 GHz-enabled devices, docks, displays and storage at multi-gigabit speeds, while maintaining enterprise-wide or whole home coverage with 2.4 GHz/5 GHz Wi-Fi.

The networking card will be available in two options: the QCA9006NFC next-generation form factor (NGFF) and the QCA9006WBD half-mini card (HMC) specification. The key is that the operating system sees the card as a PCI Express interface and so does not need a specific driver, making the integration much simpler.

Figure 4: Startup Wilocity is working with Qualcomm Atheros on a PCI Express mini card to sit inside the latest ultrabook portable PCs.

The tri-band solution brings the industry’s first combination of Qualcomm VIVE 802.11ac and the newly ratified 802.11ad capabilities together on one card. “This latest solution opens the door for consumer electronics manufacturers to integrate the technology on platforms ranging from HDTVs and gaming consoles to notebooks,” said Vivek Gupta, vice president of computing at Qualcomm Atheros. “As a result, end users can now enjoy the speed, improved reliability and range of 802.11ac with the multi-gigabit, in-room input/output and networking achieved through 802.11ad.”

Another startup to produce silicon is Peraso Technologies. The Toronto company started shipping its PRS1021 Low Power 60 GHz Transceiver last October, and believes it will hit a price point of $5 in volume.

The 7 mm x 7 mm x 0.6 mm package with integrated antennas supports a transmission power of 310 mW at 16.5 dBm and a receive power of 270 mW, making it suitable for portable devices.

"We founded the company based on providing 60 GHz products with a small footprint, low power consumption, and competitive pricing," said Peraso President and CEO, Ronald Glibbery. "The PRS1021 is our first step in achieving that goal".

The PRS1021 is fully compatible with the WiGig Version 1.1 and the draft IEEE 802.11ad specifications, at PHY data rates at 2.5 Gbit/s for PCI Express rather than the full 7 Gbit/s. The high performance allows the device to support all WiGig protocol application layers (PALs) including WiGig Serial Extension (WSE), which can provide multi-gigabit wireless connectivity to any SuperSpeed USB3.0 device. One of the features of the high speed is that this approach can use less energy, shooting large amounts of data over a link quickly and then shutting down. The Peraso device claims an energy efficiency better than 300 pJ/bit so that it can be used for applications such as screen mirroring in full 1080p HD.

"60 GHz technology has shown promise in the past," said Filomena Berardi, Senior Analyst at IHS "With the PRS1021, Peraso clearly demonstrates it is possible to balance cost, size and performance in 60 GHz chipset products. We believe 60 GHz is poised to play a significant role in CE connectivity in the years to come."

Blu Wireless Technology in Bristol, UK, has also been ramping up its 60 GHz development team after a series of deals but is taking a different approach.

The company has shifted its strategy from developing a chip to produce system IP for the 60 GHz band and now has several key contracts as well as angel investments. The company aims to expand to over twenty-five engineers over the next year to continue developing its Hybrid Defined Radio Architecture (HYDRA) massively parallel baseband processor. The company has fifteen patents in application, and is aiming at chips for short range, high-speed wireless video links such as mobile gaming, wireless HDMI or Wi-Fi displays.

“We have tried to do an extremely difficult thing in the last two years in a very difficult financial environment,” said CEO Henry Nurser. “We think we have found an approach that works, providing system IP.”

The key is to have, or acquire, the IP that the customers need for a complete design in 60 GHz, rather than just providing one block, he says. “I think it’s good timing for the IP model,” he said. “There’s now a buzz around 60 GHz. We could do a complete chip for the customer, but doing it as IP means not having the large fixed costs of a fabless development. In an IP model, you have a license fee and royalties, but it is never enough to pay for the whole development. In the 60 GHz space, it is actually very difficult to integrate with applications processors, and this makes it an ideal opportunity for the system IP supplier.”

Another start-up working on the chip and packaging technology is Nitero, a spin out of Australian technology with its headquarters in Austin, Texas.

The technology spun out of National ICT Australia (NICTA), the country’s Information and Communications Technology Research Centre of Excellence and has demonstrated its 60 GHz transceiver in operation. "Nitero is a great example of Technology Mining in Australia, when a unique Australian invention like Wi-Fi is united with experienced Australian and US co-investors, a proven management team, and strong government support through NICTA and Commercialisation Australia, to create a truly disruptive innovation," said Dr. Larry Marshall, managing partner of one of the company’s investors, Southern Cross.

Conclusion

After many years of development, false starts and failed ventures, 60 GHz is finally taking off to lay the ghost of UWB to rest. A single global standard in IEEE802.11ad and a single industry-marketing group within the Wi-Fi Alliance gives it the standards-based support that large customers and chip vendors require. The technology has been demonstrated to work and cards are being integrated into Ultrabooks later this year. The move into smartphones will take longer and require more software development and more focus on the power consumption, but the prospect of mirroring the screen of a phone on a large TV is compelling for many equipment makers. Just as 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi started in leading edge applications, so the high volume of 60 GHz Wi-Fi will drive down costs quickly. With parts already at $5, the opportunity arises to add high-speed short-range wireless links to a wide range of consumer and industrial equipment over the next five years.

Links:
  • www.wi-fi.org
  • www.wigig.org
  • www.IEEE-SA.org
  • www.wilocity.com
  • www.perasotech.com
  • www.bluwirelesstechnology.com
  • www.nitero.com
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