Qualcomm 60 GHz WiFi gamble is like an election – too close to call

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If 60 GHz WiFi ever takes off, Qualcomm will find itself in one hell of a lead. And Qualcomm talked up this possibility at a webinar held last week by WiFi supremo, Mark Grodzinsky, Senior Director of Product Management at Qualcomm Technologies. There has been little news since Qualcomm added a bunch of features at CES in January of this year. Watching the 60 GHz market emerge has been like watching paint dry, and nothing definitive has happened since 2005 really.

Wilocity came out of what some described as a “science experiment,” and has its antecedents when 60GHz was the only mantra wireless starts ups were still spouting after the Ultra-Wide Band standards war in the 2005/6 era, when 60 GHz was first mooted as a viable technology. No company has since made (much) money out of this much maligned spectrum – and Qualcomm, having swallowed Wilocity a few years back, wants to be the first.

Grodzinsky kicked off praising products like the Netgear Nighthawk, based on his chips, and initiatives such as one from operator du, in Dubai in the middle east which has installed 60GHz capable WiFi in 300 hotspots as a trial.

He claimed that in 60 GHz there is 9 GHz of spectrum available today and that soon it would rise to 15 GHz and that his own silicon could offer 4.6 Gbps as its basic PHY rate and that’s working with the existing 802.11ad standard, and that the coming 802.11ay emerging standard would see this go to multiples of that. 

Here we have to say that at Faultline, we have concerns about this being possible, and we later raised issues with Grodzinsky over electrical power, radiated power, the inability of 60 GHz to pass through a wall to push beyond a single room, and the difficultly of putting such technology into smartphones.

Grodzinsky has the religious belief of a true convert, citing 60 GHz as more energy efficient than 5 GHz per megabyte delivered, which is not really the point. If 60 GHz cannot move content outside a single room, it means that there will have to be multiple 60 GHz devices per home, one for each room. The current trend in WiFi Access Points is to have about 3 per home and shift traffic intelligently between them. So would an 8 room house need 8 APs in 60 GHz? Perhaps less than that we feel. But we raise this to make the point that the issues of electrical power and radiated power are not simplistic.

He then points out that the power consumed by power amplifiers in 5 GHz WiFi radios makes them many times more electrically wasteful and therefore less easily powered inside a mobile phone. So do 60 GHz radios not have amplifiers? They do. Again we would rather have a 5 GHz radio inside our phones, with 2 or more MIMO antennas, because finding WiFi in a 300-foot range is easy. Finding a small rooms worth is not so easy. And if you go to a stadium, you don’t want 200 dense 60 GHz cells come up on your phone for choosing a connection. Which is why it needs SON management, a single SSID and needs to be meshed – it’s a given. Which means that they would have been useless before these things were commonplace – which is this year.

As we say, this is a religious argument. Neither Broadcom, the market leader in WiFi, or Marvell or Ralink who between them make up the bulk of WiFi chip shipments, plus specialists like Quantenna and Celeno – have shown too much interest in 60 GHz. But they will have these moves covered, people sitting in standards meetings and perhaps a skunk lab working on “just in case” scenarios. Broadcom announced a 60 GHz mesh solution in May 2016 while Marvell looked to license the Wilocity silicon prior to Qualcomm buying the firm.

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Peter has been involved in technology for 35 years, and is now the Lead Analyst at Faultline, a digital media research service offered by Rethink Technology Research. In his work at Faultline Peter has built an understanding of wired and wireless Triple Play and Quad Play models including multiscreen video delivery, taking in all aspects of delivering video files including IPTV. This includes all the various content protection, conditional access and digital rights management, encoding, set tops and VoD server technologies. Peter writes about all forms of video delivery is fascinated with the impact IP is having on all of the entertainment fields, and calls his service Faultline because of the deep faults which can devastate large established companies operating in the fields of consumer electronics, broadcasting, content delivery, content creation, and all forms of telecommunications operators, as content begins to be delivered digitally. Peter is currently advising major players and start up ventures in this field, and has both written and validated business plans in the area.

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