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6 June 2017

Qualcomm pushes WiFi’s limits in all directions

In recent times, Qualcomm has come out of its 3GPP enclosure and sought to be a major force in WiFi too, courtesy of its Atheros acquisition and inhouse activities. Its latest announcement, made at last week’s Computex trade show in Taiwan, is a mesh networking platform which builds a full reference platform, for OEMs, around its chips, and brings together several WiFi technologies, stretching them beyond their usual limits.

The Mesh Networking Platform is designed to connect smart devices of all kinds through the home, including the increasingly important voice-activated home controllers such as Google Home and Amazon Echo.

Its offering should reduce time to market for vendors which want to follow Google. Netgear and Linksys into the home wireless mesh space, launching systems which boost WiFi coverage by using two or three access points. Some of these are already using Qualcomm’s IPQ 40×8/9 network system-on-chip (SoC), which the company says is used in nearly every mesh networking product available today – but a reference design should lower the barriers to others.

Qualcomm’s platform supports voice control capabilities and centralized management and security, as well as self-organizing features to optimize WiFi coverage and traffic quality. Qualcomm is also offering cloud-based diagnostics to enable remote monitoring and analytics for troubleshooting. And the integrated voice capabilities allow users to  interact with devices on their network using a built-in microphone array and speaker and voice recognition software. It also supports APIs to popular cloud-based digital assistant applications.

The chip giant also provides an IoT connectivity suite to work with the platform, enabling simultaneous use of WiFi, Bluetooth and 802.15.4 technologies such as ZigBee and Thread. The Bluetooth end includes support for CSRmesh, another Qualcomm mesh system, which it acquired with UK-based CSR. The platform can also support other communication protocols, cloud services and software frameworks, says Qualcomm, with the aim of sitting at the heart of the home as a universal hub for different connectivity technologies and ecosystems.

Gopi Sirineni, VP of product management at the company, said: “New capabilities like voice assistance and IoT radio integration will not only transform consumer experiences at home, but along with carrier-grade feature enhancements, make it easier for our customers to adopt and deploy mesh systems aligned to how people want their networks to perform.”

The company says various WiFi variants, as well as powerline, can be used to backhaul the mesh. These include 802.11ac, but it also mentions 802.11ad (WiGig), best known for connecting devices in the home at very high speeds, but over very short distances; and the forthcoming 802.11ax, the next generation of WiFi standards, which will be targeted at more efficient use of spectrum to boost data rates in complex environments such as sports venues.1

This indicates a common feature of the WiFi industry – vendors race to launch pre-standard products, striking a delicate balance between moving too early (and facing a difficult upgrade to fully standard products in future) and leaving it too late, losing  first mover advantage. It also sees Qualcomm pushing the newer WiFi variants – 11ax, but also 11ad – beyond the use cases for which they have been initially designed.

Qualcomm announced an end-to-end family of chips based on pre-standard 802.11ax specs in February, including support for network infrastructure and client devices. These are sampling now, and the first product is expected in November, with the first carrier and enterprise-class products due in March 2018. A Qualcomm VP of product management, Irvind Ghai, told FierceWireless: “We’re seeing a quick shift to 11ax.

In the case of 802.11ad, the standards are finalized, and the technology is starting to move beyond its early use cases of streaming HD video between TVs and tablets, or connecting PCs and peripherals. But Qualcomm is showing the short range, 60 GHz system operating in very different scenarios – over ranges of up to one kilometer, and in outdoor networks. The company said this would turn it into a broadband access option for enterprises and carriers and it believes customers will introduce tri-band access points and outdoor hotspots this year, supporting WiFi in 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz and 60 GHz.

One of the first publicly announced products is the Wireless Wire 60G, an outdoor transparent link recently introduced by MikroTik. This is a gigabit Ethernet extender for connecting buildings over up to 100 meters.

Qualcomm says 802.11ad can be an alternative to cable and fiber because the 60 GHz band has plentiful capacity and is uncongested. Its new 11ad chipset combines the QCA6335 baseband and QCA6310 RF transceiver, which uses up to 256 antenna elements, with beamforming and beamsteering, to achieve the extended range and cope with the obstacles of outdoor environments. The chip giant said the product can enable access points which “maintain strong connections in dense environments, highly accurate positioning, as well as a low power CMOS design to meet enterprise Power over Ethernet (PoE) requirements.”

Ghai said: “802.11ad holds great promise for a wide variety of consumer applications, and can now provide enterprises and carriers with a highly robust and cost-effective way to extend their networks indoors and out [using] virtually untapped wireless spectrum to eliminate expensive fiber installs and unsightly aerial cable drops.”

It also believes tri-band APs will complement enterprise WLANs by augmenting capacity in areas of dense usage such as conference rooms or auditoriums. Fast Session Transfer (FST) can provide seamless transition to 802.11ac when roaming.