By Maury Wood, Principal Analyst
Wi-Fi infrastructure has been evolving in two ways, in terms of performance and of usability. A significant wave of hotspot upgrades is under way, driven by the uptake of 802.11ac and of Hotspot 2.0/Next Generation Hotspot. These two technology shifts are the most important in the shift of public Wi-Fi from best effort towards carrier-grade.
2×2 MIMO 802.11ac is now a standard feature in new smartphones, phablets, tablets and notebook computers. By early 2015, new iOS and Android radio firmware will enable Multi User MIMO functionality in smartphones, potentially doubling Wi-Fi throughput as 11ac Wave 2 Access Points are deployed. This article highlights some of the key findings of the latest and unique report entitled “Wi-Fi Blasts Ahead with 11ac Wave 2 Chipsets” published this week by EJL Wireless Research, a research partner of Maravedis LLC.
Promise of Gigabit Wi-Fi
Consumer client devices and access points (both consumer broadband gateways and enterprise-class / carrier-class) using 11ac Wave 2 technology promise nearly instantaneous (very low latency) data transfers with high Quality of Experience / Quality of Service. They will be capable of supporting multiple ultra high definition streaming video flows, including UHD “telepresence” video conferencing flows, as well as hundreds of clients per AP. Additionally, 11ac Wave 2 client devices and access points will offer increasingly robust and comprehensive wireless plus wired security as well as content-aware traffic engineering features.
Complex System Design Risks
Semiconductor companies who can supply both Wi-Fi radios and companion digital System-on-Chip (SoC) processors plus the software and system reference designs are at an enormous advantage over microchip companies who can only supply the digital SoC processor. Wi-Fi systems, such as access points and wireless broadband gateways, are extremely complex hardware (requiring digital, RF and mixed-signal integrated circuits) and embedded software systems. The overwhelming majority of WLAN equipment OEMs are uninterested in attempting to integrate these complex systems using radios and processors from different suppliers. A good illustration of this complexity is the Netgear R7500 Nighthawk X4 consumer WLAN router, which integrates the Qualcomm IPQ8064 with the Quantenna QSR1000 radio, and despite this combination of “best-in-class” silicon components, does not achieve performance that is superior to Broadcom’s chipset (radios and networking processor).
Integrated System Solutions Rule The Roost
Embedded software is frequently the critical determinant of Wi-Fi system performance, and suppliers of both radios and companion processors deliver optimized system software, as well as comprehensive system-level application / software integration engineering support to their customers. For this key reason, this report does not include analysis of general purpose embedded processors from AppliedMicro, Cavium, Freescale (including the Comcerto C2200 and QorIQ T1020), and LSI Logic, none of whom offer companion Wi-Fi radio products.
Super Smart Access Points Plus Storage
The purpose-built Wi-Fi access point networking processors most recently announced by Broadcom, Qualcomm and Marvell have enormously powerful general purpose multi-core ARM CPUs and specialized accelerator engines, and (concurrent with Wave 2 radio performance enhancements) herald a new era of super-smart access points able to run multi-Gbps line rate unified threat management, adaptive / intelligent QoS, continuous spectral analysis and cognitive RF interference avoidance, deep packet inspection and other advanced embedded applications. This order-of-magnitude lift in access point compute capacity is occurring simultaneously with the trend towards controller-less cloud-managed enterprise AP architectures, as well as the trends toward Network Function Virtualization (NFV) and Software Defined Networking (SDN).
Broadcom – Market Leader
Among the top 30 best performing (using maximum 5 GHz downlink throughput as the metric) 11ac Wave 1 and early Wave 2 WLAN routers, using test results from Small Net Builder (www.smallnetbuilder.com), Broadcom chipsets occupies 22 slots (including 8 of the top 10), Qualcomm occupies 7 slots, and Marvell occupies 1 slot in results posted in October 2014. We believe that Broadcom is the performance leader in Wave 1 Wi-Fi chipsets today.
With more than 100 known 802.11ac production design wins, Broadcom is the current leading supplier of Wave 1 802.11ac chipsets (radios and companion networking processors), but Qualcomm (with 58 known 802.11ac Wave 1 production design wins) is now poised to threaten Broadcom’s leadership market share in 2H15 and 1H16 with strong recent Wave 2 product announcements. Broadcom is currently under competitive pressure to announce 11ac Wave 2 radios and upgraded fully carrier-class StrataGX processors.
Wave 2.5 Radios and RF PAs in 2H15
Announced Wave 2 11ac radios (from Qualcomm and Quantenna) do not have support for 160 MHz or 80 MHz + 80 MHz bonded channels. EJL Wireless Research terms next generation 11ac radios with 160 MHz bonded channel support as “Wave 2.5”, and forecasts this capability will appear in 11ac radios announced in 2H15. As the FCC, ETSI and other international regulatory bodies open up additional 5 GHz spectrum for Wi-Fi use, this will become a more important feature (potentially doubling maximum PHY data rate). Companion RF front-end ICs with adequate linearity performance to support 160 MHz channels are likely to be announced from suppliers such as SkyWorks and Qorvo (RFMD / TriQuint) in that timeframe. This report also compares the cutting-edge infrastructure radios and Wi-Fi networking SoC processors from the nine suppliers covered.