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Wi-Fi Alliance Certification of 802.11ac Wave 2: Good News for Suppliers

by Chris Taylor | Jul 01, 2016

The Wi-Fi Alliance just announced that it will now include 802.11ac Wave 2 devices under its interoperability, testing and certification program.  This is good news for the Wi-Fi industry, and will support demand for the latest Wi-Fi radio SoCs and for more RF front-end components as well.

Wi-Fi device providers had viewed the lack of an official certification process as a reason for caution in fully embracing Wave 2, and removal of this impediment means widespread adoption of the technology.  As of the end of 2015, Strategy Analytics identified 85 client and infrastructure devices incorporating 802.11ac Wave 2.  More Wave 2 devices appeared at CES 2016, and the total is above 100 now, with more on the way.

Wave 2 uses MU-MIMO, which can double or even triple data rates in households and congested hotspots with many users simultaneously contending for the same Wi-Fi access point.  802.11ac Wave 2 moves Wi-Fi into the smartphone-mobile-video era, and improves Wi-Fi performance dramatically compared to both plain vanilla 802.11ac (Wave 1) and the older dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi standard.

Many of the latest Wi-Fi SoCs support Wave 2; of these, the Qualcomm-Atheros IPQ40x8 “internet processor” caught our attention:

  • The SoC supports 802.11ac Wave 2 with 2 x 2 MU-MIMO in an SoC intended for gateways, routers and related infrastructure.
  • Previously, Wave 2 Wi-Fi infrastructure devices used at least two main chips, a Wi-Fi radio and a host processor.  The IPQ40x8 replaces these two with a single SoC that includes host processor and Wi-Fi transceiver-baseband-MAC that handles both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands.
  • Qualcomm also offers a slimmed-down, slightly less-capable version, the IPQ40x9, and just announced a more powerful version, the IPQ8065, which handles four MIMO streams (4 x 4).

In addition to Wave 2, the Wi-Fi infrastructure vendors have started to offer Wi-Fi kits or boxed suites of configurable routers / bridges / range extenders.  A good example of this is the Luma 3-pack, which consists of three access points that automatically configure themselves for the most efficient whole-home Wi-Fi coverage:

  • Luma uses Wi-Fi mesh and Wi-Fi SON features from Qualcomm.  Qualcomm has said it would roll out more SON features next year, and will also support the upcoming IEEE Wi-Fi SON.
  • Luma also uses 802.11ac Wave 2, although the company does not advertise this, probably to their detriment.  The Luma 3-pack is possibly the most sophisticated and advanced Wi-Fi system available to the consumer today.

Wave 2 makes use of more antennas for MIMO, usually two in the client device and four or eight in the access point.  Even though it is possible to fabricate the transmit power amps within the Wi-Fi radio SoC with adequate output power for many applications, the silicon occupied by the PAs makes this more challenging with so many antennas and MIMO streams.  This means that 802.11ac, and especially 802.11ac Wave 2, is causing an uptick in demand for external power amplifiers (often GaAs) and related RF front-end modules.

A great example of this is Netgear’s Nighthawk X8 R8500 router.  Qorvo supplies eight 5 GHz Wi-Fi PAs for this router.  Strategy Analytics has not done a full analysis of PAs in Wave 2 enabled phones, but we expect a similar story here.

For more details about the advantages of Wave 2 and available devices, see the Strategy Analytics report 802.11ac Wave 2 with MU-MIMO: The Next Mainstream Wi-Fi Standard.
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