The first next-gen Wi-Fi chips arrive

Broadcom announced its first chip family based on the coming 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard

Wi-Fi is getting faster -- again. Today Wi-Fi chipmaker Broadcom announced its first chips based on the coming 802.11ac standard, the successor to today’s 802.11n Wi-Fi. Products based on 802.11ac are expected to begin appearing late this year, delivering improved coverage and theoretical speeds up to twice those offered by the fastest 802.11n gear.

Broadcom is calling its 802.11ac products 5G Wi-Fi because 802.11ac will be the fifth-generation IEEE standard for the popular wireless networking technology. The previous four were 802.11, 802.11b, 802.11a/g, and 802.11n.

The 802.11 standard was introduced in 1997, but never gained much traction. It had a theoretical top speed of 2-megabits-per-second. Two years later, 802.11b delivered a theoretical 11Mbps, and it became the first widely used Wi-Fi technology. In 2002, the 802.11a and 802.11g standards raised the bar with top theoretical speeds of 54Mbps. The two standards used different areas of the wireless spectrum and hence were incompatible, with 802.11a operating exclusively on the 5Ghz band and 802.11g (like 802.11b before it) using the 2.4Ghz band.

By the mid 2000s, Wi-Fi had become so popular that many more stakeholders had an interest in the next-generation version. Consequently, it took seven years for the IEEE to develop and ratify the 802.11n standard, which encompassed a range of options designed to accommodate the many different types of devices that incorporate Wi-Fi today, from PCs and consumer electronics to cell phones and tablets.

For example, 802.11n devices can operate on either the 2.4Ghz or 5Ghz bands or both, and speeds vary widely based on the number of transmitting and receiving antennas (802.11n on a cell phone usually isn’t as fast as 802.11n on a notebook). But the fastest 802.11n devices use technologies such as multiple spatial streams, channel bonding and packet aggregation to offer improved coverage and theoretical top speeds of 600Mbps.

Similarly, 802.11ac also offers a number of options, which are reflected in Broadcom’s first chip offerings. But all 802.11ac chips will all use the 5Ghz band, which is much wider than the crowded 2.4Ghz band and can therefore more easily support the 80Mhz channels that contribute to 802.11ac speed boosts (802.11n channels max out at 40Mhz). 802.11ac also uses beamforming technology to achieve its faster rates and improved coverage. And because it is more efficient, 802.11ac takes less of a toll on battery life, a key attribute for mobile device use.

Broadcom chips are also backwards compatible with all 802.11n gear (both 5Ghz and 2.4Ghz), although not at 802.11ac speeds.

Broadcom’s fastest 5G Wi-Fi chip, the BCM4360, implements 3 spatial streams on a PCI interface to achieve maximum speeds of 1.3GHz. The midrange BCM4352 and BCM43526 chips support a two-stream implementation of 802.11ac for theoretical maximum speeds of 867mbps for use with, respectively, PCI and USB interfaces. The single-stream BCM43516 supports up to 433Mbps with a USB interface. The PCI chips are primarily for routers, access points and computers, while the USB chips are meant for consumer electronics such as TVs, Blu-ray players and set-top boxes.

Broadcom sees 802.11ac gaining traction for a wide range of high bandwidth applications for both businesses and consumers, ranging from streaming media to data sync and backups. On mobile devices, 802.11ac supported is expected to help offload traffic from already choked carrier networks.

The name of the standard, 802.11ac, derives from the IEEE's convention of naming related standards as their working groups are established. With Wi-Fi, the IEEE had already exhausted single-letter suffixes (a through z) to 802.11 and had started all over again with two-letter suffixes -- e.g. 802.11aa 802.11ab and now 802.11ac.

Broadcom expects to see its 5G chips in network gear starting in the third quarter, with other end-user products following by the end of the year.

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Yardena Arar

PC World (US online)
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?