What's next for Wi-Fi?

The huge 11n performance jump -- to 300Mbps data rate and roughly 100M to 150Mbps throughput -- will become the basis for unwiring work and life to a much greater extent than ever before

The recent formal approval of the IEEE 802.11n wireless standard marks not the end but the start of a wave of Wi-Fi innovation. In the next three to five years, the Wi-Fi experience will be very different from today.

802.11n price wars already underway

The huge 11n performance jump -- to 300Mbps data rate and roughly 100M to 150Mbps throughput -- will become the basis for unwiring work and life to a much greater extent than ever before. You can picture it as a fast-growing archipelago of wireless connectivity, with access points becoming more prevalent, interlinked in meshed clusters, and able to cooperate far more closely with smarter Wi-Fi clients. Here we've focused on eight ways Wi-Fi will change for the better, enabling improved signal quality, more reliable connections, optimized bandwidth, increased battery life and stronger security.

1. Broader broadband

Although the IEEE has launched two projects intended to bring gigabit and multi-gigabit data rates to the 802.11 standard, neither has come up with a first draft.

But the 11n standard makes possible a range of high data rates, which can be adapted to different functions and devices. Today, all 11n radios support two spatial data streams that are sent and received using some combination of two or three antennas, and these radios are set to appear in mobile devices. Apple's newest Wi-Fi-only iPod touch, for instance, has a Broadcom radio chip that supports but doesn't yet use11n.

Soon, more Wi-Fi chips will support three and even four data streams, with respective data rates of 450Mbps and 600Mbps. Early in 2009, Quantenna Communications demonstrated  its 4x4 chipset in action, streaming several high-def TV signals through a home-sized space.

"While there will not be a lot of client devices that support four spatial streams, properly designed access points will take advantage of the 600Mbps physical layer data rates to enable high-speed, wireless backbones," says William Kish, co-founder and CTO of Wi-Fi equipment vendor Ruckus Wireless.

You'll be able to mesh these high-end nodes via the 802.11s standard (due in September 2010), creating Internet-like Wi-Fi networks that are redundant and can route around failures.

2. Tougher radio frequency signals

More of 11n's optional performance features will appear in radio chips, and be used in wireless clients and access points to make RF signals more resilient, consistent and reliable. In other words, more like a wire.

"This new [11n] physical layer technology will make Wi-Fi more robust, with higher data rates at given ranges, and at longer ranges," says William McFarland, CTO for chipmaker Atheros Communications.

These performance features include: low-density parity check coding, which improves error correction; transmit beam forming, which uses feedback from a Wi-Fi client to let an access point focus the RF signal on the client; and space-time block coding (STBC), which exploits the multiple antennas more for improved signal reliability than for higher data rates.

"Today when you walk around a building with a [Wi-Fi] laptop, you'll find data rates drop or fade out," McFarland says. "But with STBC, the connection will still work."

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