Historically the transition to new WiFi standards has been a horrible mess. With the launch of the current 802.11n standard, for example, we saw several different types of products, all based on the same draft version of the standard. Dubbed Pre-N and Draft-N these devices lacked interoperability, which made for an incredibly messy transition, and a whole bunch of products that were effectively rendered useless once the 802.11n standard was ratified.
It is important to keep this situation in mind when looking at the next wireless standard, 802.11ac. Informally known as Gigabit WiFi, we are already seeing routers on the market, and USB adapters will start appearing in the coming months. This is despite the fact that the standard won’t be ratified until early next year.
Given that early adopters were burned by the transition to 802.11n, scepticism is to be expected over these first generation products. To get a handle on just what has changed we recently talked 802.11ac with Netgear’s VP of Product Management, Retail Product, David Henry and Senior Director of Product Marketing for Broadcom’s Mobile and Wireless Group, Dino Bekis.
According to Henry the most significant difference between the 802.11n transition and the 802.11ac one is that there were at least three different manufacturers pushing solutions in the leadup to 802.11n, which not only caused product confusion but delayed the actual ratification of the standard. This time around Broadcom is the first company with 802.11ac silicon.
Bekis reinforces this, saying that “the industry learned lessons with 802.11n”. The changes to the specification not only caused confusion, but they delayed the adoption of the standard. With 802.11ac on the other hand, the industry “recognised the importance of quickly converging”.
Not only is there an inherent compatibility advantage in the already wide adoption of Broadcom’s various processors, but both Henry and Bekis assured us that any changes made between now and the ratification of 802.11ac would be handled with software updates and not via changes to the base design of hardware.
As Bekis put it “for early adopters the best case will be no issue at all, the worst case will involve driver or firmware updates”. This is something reinforced from Netgear’s perspective with Henry telling us the currently absent 802.11ac features like beamforming will come with software updates rather than hardware revisions.
The other big piece of the puzzle is going to be 802.11ac clients. While Netgear was first with an 802.11ac router, its R6300, there are now numerous routers on the market (all using Broadcom’s processor). Netgear expects to have USB adapters available locally towards the end of September, but both Henry and Bekis indicated that it will be CES 2013 where we will see a large number of devices announced with 802.11ac support.