Over the next few years, cellular phones, tablets, and computers will switch to 5G wireless, a faster, higher-bandwidth technology that is expected to change entire societies. Even the earliest 5G devices will be capable of 1-5 gigabit per second (Gps) peak speeds, which is 10 to 100 times faster than most home broadband connections today. This impending paradigm shift is raising an interesting question: When your phone is faster than your cable modem, why bother with the modem — or a Wi-Fi network?
The answer is that you’re still going to need data service for your TVs, computers, and “smart home” devices, all of which will continue using Wi-Fi for data. Cable companies will upgrade their home services to compete with 5G. But current Wi-Fi routers won’t have enough bandwidth for the ultra high-resolution videos, VR experiences, and “holographic” video conferences of tomorrow.
As of right now, the future of Wi-Fi is somewhat fuzzy. One alternative is the IEEE 802.11ad “WiGig” standard, which was developed years ago as a sequel to the universally adopted 802.11ac. In short, an 802.11ad router adds a new 60GHz antenna to older 2.4GHz and 5GHz antennas, enabling data to transfer at up to 7.2 Gbps — so long as the router is in the same room with an 802.11ad device. (WiGig’s 60GHz is the technology behind HTC’s Vive Wireless Adapter, enabling PC-dependent VR headsets to operate without cables.)
Unfortunately, once an 802.11ad device leaves the room, it will lose the 60GHz antenna’s connection and fall back to slower data speeds with the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. As a result, you might need multiple routers just to guarantee fast speeds in a single home. With only a single router, placement of the router in the same area as a data-hungry device becomes critical.
There’s an newer alternative to 802.11ad called 802.11ax. Instead of using WiGig’s short-range 60GHz antenna, 802.11ax just makes more efficient use of the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, flooding each channel with denser data. It promises up to 11 Gbps speeds, though that’s spread across three connected devices — one 802.11ax device can hit around 5 Gbps.
Faced with two competing new Wi-Fi standards, tech companies have been somewhat non-committal about what consumers can actually expect next. Rather than backing one 802.11 standard over the other, Apple recently killed its entire AirPort router lineup and said that it’s getting out of the router business. Several rivals have released 802.11ad routers over the past year and a half, but devices with 802.11ad chips remain few and far between.
The first 802.11ax routers are coming later this year, and as they’re being pitched at gamers, they’re aesthetically monstrous. Both D-Link’s light green AX11000 and Asus’ mechy GT-AX11000 look like they could flip over, crawl around your house, and eat your dog. These new routers appear to depend upon large numbers of big antennas, so it’s easy to imagine why Apple would sooner exit the business than create a similarly horrific alternative.
It’s not clear that device makers are clearly in one camp or the other, either. Asus announced the first 802.11ad phone last year, but appears to have shipped it in some territories without 802.11ad support. A report on Intel’s upcoming 5G modem plans indirectly confirmed that the chipmaker was working on a Bluetooth and 802.11ad Wi-Fi chip for upcoming 2020 iPhones, but ran into engineering problems with the 802.11ad side. Intel executives reportedly determined that adding 802.11ad “into any mobile product brings new and unanticipated challenges.”
From my perspective, it’s telling that Intel was so recently working on an 802.11ad chip that could have been used in 2020 iPhones — given that 802.11ax is just around the corner, Apple could have easily passed on 802.11ad long ago, but didn’t for some reason. And it’s equally revealing that something about the 802.11ad technology turned out to be a major problem; 60GHz antenna engineering challenges may wind up killing the concept in favor of 802.11ax.
Whichever standard prevails, the overall message remains the same: Get ready for a new Wi-Fi router — or several — in your house. Even if your next portable device puts 5G speeds in your pocket, you’re going to want to enjoy similar speeds in your home, too.