The battle for IEEE's 60GHz standards

Peter White/Rethink Research
18 Jun 2008

In the battle to dominate the high speed home media network, technologies based on Wi-Fi and others based on UltraWideBand (UWB) are key contenders. With the best supported UWB-based platform, WiMedia, looking unready to deliver high definition data rates in the near future, fast Wi-Fi variants are gaining ground, even with WiMedia supporters like Intel, and threaten to squeeze UWB out of the market. One deciding factor will be the fate of two standards efforts within the IEEE, where the Wi-Fi and UWB camps are both targeting the 60GHz spectrum, increasingly the area of the unlicensed spectrum where the hopes for multi-gigabit networks are converging.

The IEEE is already home to a standards initiative for 60 GHz wireless personal area networks (PANs), called 802.15.3c. This is widely expected to favor a UWB-based approach, although a range of would-be standards are hoping to gain adoption, including the WirelessHD Alliance, which is supported by Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, Toshiba, NEC and LG Electronics. Now the wireless LAN portion of the IEEE, 802.11, which sets base standards for Wi-Fi, also aims to create a standard for 60GHz. The two groups will meet next week to try to avoid one of the inter-working group feuds that have sometimes delayed or even derailed IEEE processes.

The 802.11 study group is focusing on Very High Throughput (VHT) Wi-Fi but under IEEE rules, the newer group must demonstrate that it has technologies and applications that are sufficiently different from the ongoing work of 802.15.3c before it can be approved to proceed in drafting a standard. The danger to the industry, and the IEEE's already diminished influence, is that VHT will be rejected - since its objectives are likely to be very close to those of the older group - and will then seek a standards home elsewhere.

The alternative, that the Wi-Fi community would voluntarily stay out of the 60GHz standards race, is almost inconceivable, especially as companies based on enhanced 802.11 platforms, are starting to gain high profile in the nascent high definition digital home network. But a Wi-Fi initiative outside the auspices of the IEEE could create fragmentation of the silicon market, where the early years will anyway see challenges in the economics - the need for ultra-low cost chips to embed in every consumer device, combined with the complexities of implementing 60GHz devices in cost effective CMOS (a few chipmakers, such as Toshiba, have achieved this in small runs).

Industry insiders speculate that the VHT group will try to ensure acceptance by the IEEE by focusing on the need for interoperability with other Wi-Fi systems in other frequencies. This would support integrated Wi-Fi networks for a wider range of home applications - including PC LANs and even home monitoring - than 60GHz would enable on its own, and so would harness the legacy installed base. In particular, sources told EETimes, the group could define a standard that includes fast switching between Wi-Fi at 2.4GHz, 5GHz and 60GHz, plus the capability for devices to negotiate at the lower frequencies a move to the 60GHz links.

The greater challenge would be proving differentiation in targeted commercial applications, which is also mandated by the IEEE along with technical uniqueness. The 802.15.3c group is firmly focused on distribution of high definition video and other content, and on high speed synchronization of devices, which does not seem to leave much space for 60GHz Wi-Fi.

Even if both standards efforts go ahead, they will still face challenges from other high speed home networking efforts, such as WiMedia, Pulse~Link's C-Wave, WirelessHD and WHDI, and there will be pressure on 802.15.3c to incorporate at least one of those technologies in order to reduce fragmentation and industry feuds.

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