802.11ac is a next generation wireless LAN (WLAN) standard promising data rates up to 1 Gb/s. The standard is targeted for a number of applications, but a main one is streaming video. Here, 802.11ac is competing with 802.11ad, a very different technology. While on paper, 802.11ac does not have the data throughput of 802.11ad – 6 Gbps for 802.11ad vs. 1 Gbps for a 4x4 MIMO 802.11ac setup, it may well be “good enough”. If recent (and past) consumer electronics technology battles are any indicator, “good enough” often wins the race. Whatever happened to Betamax (superior to VHS), SA-CD (Super Audio CD), and even Blu Ray (many consumers are streaming video over the internet at a much lower data rate)?
Revolution vs. Evolution
802.11ac is a fundamentally evolutionary technology to existing 802.11n technology. It uses existing frequency bands and simply extends modulation rates and bandwidth to achieve ever higher data rates. Importantly, it provides backward compatibility with the nearly 1B WLAN devices that have been shipped in the last 10 years. Contrast this with 802.11ad, a “revolutionary” which uses untested frequency bands, exotic semiconductor packaging technologies, and expensive test equipment. Which standard has fewer barriers to adoption in your mind?
One Application or Many?
802.11ac technology can be used for multiple applications such as: wireless networking, displaying content from a tablet to a display, displaying content from a smartphone to a display, and many more. 802.11ad is primarily targeted for HDMI “cable replacement” and possibly laptop docking applications. Given the limited power budgets and space constraints in today’s ever smaller mobile devices, it seems unlikely there will be room for both technologies in these platforms. If you were a designer of a next generation smartphone, would you choose to include 2 radio technologies (i.e. 802.11ac and 802.11ac) or include only one technology and use the extra space for a larger battery to improve battery life?
Easy to adopt
802.11ac builds on over a decade of manufacturing experience with 802.11 a/b/g/n WLAN systems in a variety of products which makes the transition to 802.11ac much easier for manufacturers. 802.11ad will require many changes in the product design and manufacturing process. Additionally, 802.11n has paved the way for MIMO antenna arrangements in numerous products, so 802.11ac will be able to piggyback off of these efforts seamlessly taking advantage of the higher data rates and transmission “robustness” that MIMO systems provide.
Ultimately the consumer – not us digerati, will decide the winner of the video streaming technology race. Likely, the mass market consumer will not even understand the technology employed and may even choose the “winner” based on other product attributes totally un-related to the wireless transmission technology. If recent times are any guide, we should heed the lessons of past technology races and focus on the best overall consumer experience versus debating technical specifications.