Generation AX

Qualcomm introduces new chipsets for 801.11ax

Earlier this year we wrote about the importance of the other next-generation wireless standard, Wi-Fi 6. While 5G has been making headlines across the globe as access expands from city to city, the new IEEE 802.11ax standard, marketed as Wi-Fi 6, will play an equally important role in creating ubiquitous robust wireless connectivity (see The Other New Wireless Standard).

Wi-Fi 6 was developed not just to be faster — speeds can reach 11 Gbps under optimal conditions — but also to handle dense networks filled with lots of connected things. It’s designed with the capacity conundrum in mind, and its greater encryption offers an increased level of security. It’s a major step forward in Wi-Fi, just as 5G is a big step forward in cellular communications, and it offers many of the same benefits as 5G.

At its Wi-Fi 6 Day event in San Francisco, Qualcomm announced its Networking Pro Series, a portfolio of chipsets to enable products with Wi-Fi 6 access. Qualcomm’s Networking Pro Platform comprises four product lines, dubbed the 400, 600, 800, and 1200 series.

The four platforms feature 8×8 radio support, multi-user, multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO), orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA) with support for up to 37 users per 5 GHz channel used, Wi-Fi 6 modulation scheme, improved security implementation and the ability to associate and maintain connectivity for up to 1,500 clients simultaneously. They also support reconfiguration of wireless resources so manufacturers can design for either dual- or tri-radio operation (8×8 and 4×4, or 4×4 plus 4×4 plus 4×4) without the need to add a separate radio component.

Qualcomm also announced its FastConnect 6800 subsystem, which will support Wi-Fi 6 in Snapdragon chipsets. FastConnect 6200 already features in the vast majority of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 designs and has spearheaded the integration of Wi-Fi 6 into devices. The new FastConnect 6800 Subsystem includes 1024 quadrature amplitude modulation, uplink MU-MIMO and Bluetooth 5.1, which will enable the development of smaller, more power-efficient smartphones supporting Wi-Fi 6.

The announcement of the Networking Pro Series and FastConnect 6800 is a boost for Wi-Fi 6, and should enable an ecosystem for next-generation Wi-Fi to be established more rapidly than for previous versions. It also increases competition between Qualcomm and Broadcom, a key supplier of Wi-Fi chipsets. Since its acquisition of Atheros, Qualcomm has established itself as a leading supplier of Wi-Fi, with over 4 billion Wi-Fi chips shipped since 2015.

The products also illustrate synergies in technology development, with technologies such as OFDMA, MU-MIMO and millimetre-wave communications central to LTE, 5G and Wi-Fi 6. The Next Generation Mobile Network Alliance (led by mobile network operators) and the Wireless Broadband Alliance (led by Wi-Fi suppliers) are working to converge 5G and Wi-Fi standards to enable better interworking and provide a more seamless experience.

Some of the hype about 5G implies that its claimed advantages of coverage, capacity, throughput and low latency cast doubt on the future of Wi-Fi. The debate is oversimplified and the hype ignores important realities about product availability, volume and price. In our view, much of the excitement for both technologies comes from the expansion of their addressable market into operational areas, such as factories, which have so far been the domain of wired or specialist wireless communications. A trial of W-Fi 6 by Mettis Aerospace in the UK is a good example, announced earlier in 2019.

In practice it’s not about one technology displacing the other, as neither has a strong position in those areas today. Both technologies will need to earn their place in the portfolios of highly demanding and risk-averse customers, based on how they can be applied to specific scenarios. Again, in practice, Wi-Fi 6 products are already on the market and will be on their third generation before 5G private networking products become available at competitive prices.

In the home, Wi-Fi is also unlikely to be displaced anytime soon given its prevalence and price advantage. Even with the growth of 5G-based home broadband offerings, Wi-Fi will still play a central role. For example, a Wi-Fi mesh network is likely to be an essential part of distributing a millimetre wave-based 5G connection around the home and overcoming propagation limitations.

The same is true in office environments. Displacement is more likely in dense urban environments, where 5G network investment will be focussed to ensure quality of service in highly congested, high-traffic environments. That said, even this will be dependent on location, and it will be traffic substitution rather than device or system substitution.

Qualcomm has much to gain from 5G, but its commitment to Wi-Fi 6 shows the two technologies are certainly not mutually exclusive. More importantly, the success of Wi-Fi 6 will be dependent on Qualcomm, among others, to ensure rapid development of supporting devices and infrastructure.

The advent of Wi-Fi 6 is a big deal and will not be eclipsed by the arrival of 5G, even if the 5G world is making more noise. A new generation of connected products is coming. Gen AX, if you will.