Samsung has announced that it’s entering the 60GHz 802.11ad WiFi game. Samsung says it has a commercialized version of 60GHz WiFi (aka WiGig) that’s capable of 4.6Gbps, or 575 megabytes per second — about five times faster than current dual-stream 802.11ac devices, or fast enough to download a movie in a couple of seconds. Samsung says the first devices supporting its 60GHz WiFi tech will be available in 2015.
This announcement is a little bit fishy. Samsung is dressing this up like it’s solely responsible for developing 60GHz WiFi — but in actual fact, 802.11ad has been in development since 2009 and was standardized way back in 2012. Back then it was known as WiGig (because of its gigabit speeds), but in 2013 it was consumed by the Wi-Fi Alliance and became part of the WiFi family of wireless networking standards. We have been writing about WiGig/60GHz WiFi since at least 2011, and got our first hands-on demo in 2012 – but, seemingly for technical reasons, very few WiGig products have actually appeared on the market. Presumably Qualcomm’s acquisition of Wilocity means it will have a commercialized 802.11ad solution soon, though.
Calling 802.11ad “60GHz WiFi” is a bit of a misnomer. Until now, WiFi described a set of relatively-low-frequency (2.4GHz and 5GHz) technologies for (mostly) creating wireless LANs. As a result, WiFi has generally had a range of between 50 and 200 feet — the kind of distances that you’d usually be loathe to run a cat 5 cable. 802.11ad, because 60GHz radio waves require line-of-sight and can be disrupted by just about anything — cats, humans, bad atmospheric conditions, a closed door — generally has a range of just a few meters. As such, 60GHz WiFi has a fairly short list of decent applications, with “wireless docking stations” probably at the top.
While there’s only a few hundred megahertz of spectrum down in the 2.4/5GHz range, up in the unlicensed 60GHz range there’s around eight gigahertz of free bandwidth. A single 802.11ad channel – a swath of 2.16GHz around the 60GHz range — has a max throughput of 4.6Gbps. A single 160MHz 802.11ac channel maxes out 866Mbps — and there aren’t any 802.11ac chips that support 160MHz channels yet. Multi-stream 802.11ac is capable of similar speeds to 802.11ad, though.
Why is Samsung making such a huge deal about its 802.11ad solution, then? Well, it seems the company has found a way of overcoming the inherent difficulties of using 60GHz radio waves. The press release is sadly lacking in technical details, but apparently Samsung has developed “the world’s first micro beam-forming control technology” and a “wide-coverage beam-forming antenna” that improve the 802.11ad connection quality. Samsung doesn’t actually offer any numbers or examples, though; as far as we can tell, Samsung’s 60GHz WiFi is probably still mostly targeted at static solutions (docking stations, wireless audio/visual devices) rather than smartphones and laptops, which have a tendency to move around a lot and break the finicky 60GHz beam.
Moving forward, I’ve never been particularly convinced by 60GHz networking technologies. Once we move towards tri- and quad-stream 802.11ac devices, 802.11ad isn’t a whole lot faster — and it’s a whole lot more temperamental. Perhaps most importantly, though, 802.11ax is already coming down the pipe — and unlike 802.11ad, it’s a standard, long-range, 5GHz-based WiFi technology. A single 802.11ax stream should be capable of 3.5Gbps — and the spec will go all the way up to 4×4 MIMO, for 14Gbps, or about 1,750 megabytes per second.
Anyway, if you’re still interested, Samsung says its 802.11ad technology will be available in 2015. I don’t think the average consumer will see a lot of WiGig/60GHz WiFi — instead, 802.11ac will cement its grip in 2015 in 2016, and then slowly hand over to 802.11ax after that.