802.11ax ecosystem starting to shape up
The race to IEEE 802.11ax Wi-Fi is on. Qualcomm’s recently unveiled WCN3998 solution is the latest addition to a growing number of pre-standard or 802.11ax- “ready” chipsets hitting the market, following previous announcements by Qualcomm, Broadcom, Marvell, Quantenna, Intel, and Celeno that have predominantly targeted the access point space. Some of these access point chipsets are already being supported in commercial networking products, with the likes of ASUS, D-Link, H3C, and Huawei having already introduced early 802.11ax-ready access points and gateways to the market.
Qualcomm’s new WCN3998 solution is the most recent to target the smartphone arena, following in the footsteps of Broadcom’s BCM4375 chipset announced in August 2017. While the standard is not expected to be completed until late 2019, Wi-Fi chipset vendors are keen to bring some of the major 802.11ax features to OEMs ahead of the ratification, ensuring a smooth and swift rollout of the technology, and enabling them to take advantage of much needed performance enhancements and efficiency improvements ahead of the traditional curve. The objective of this article is to demonstrate how chipset vendors are aligning strategies to help OEMs make a smooth transition to 802.11ax and to outline some of the key challenges they will face in doing so.
802.11ax will bring about significant upgrades
IEEE 802.11ax (High-Efficiency WLAN) seeks to build upon the IEEE 802.11ac Wave 2 standard while incorporating additional features to enhance wireless performance in dense deployment scenarios. In contrast to previous Wi-Fi standards that emphasize peak throughput, 802.11ax is designed around expanding capacity, extending coverage, and enhancing the overall user experience, particularly in crowded environments. Enormous growth in Wi-Fi-enabled devices, increased traffic demands, cellular offloading, higher density Wi-Fi deployments, growing use of outdoor Wi-Fi, heterogenous device and traffic types, and a desire for more power efficiency are all major driving forces behind 802.11ax’s introduction.
To achieve this, 802.11ax is introducing a substantial number of new enhancements to both the 5 GHz and recently neglected 2.4 GHz bands. In contrast to 802.11ac Wave 2 with only a few major additions, 802.11ax is introducing around 70 to 80 new features, the most important of which include 8×8 antenna configuration, downlink and uplink MU-MIMO, OFDMA, spatial reuse techniques, target wake time (TWT), 1024 QAM modulation, and many others. As a result, the 802.11ax standard is relatively complex and a significant upgrade to previous versions. The industry will also have a vested interest to encourage faster migration to 802.11ax in 2.4 GHz, which will help efficiency in the old spectrum. 8×8 MU-MIMO, OFDMA, TWT, and throughput and efficiency enhancements can all enable better support of devices requiring lower data rates and new IoT device types to improve overall network performance and capacity in the 2.4 GHz band.
Delays in the standard
However, with greater complexity comes greater challenges. 802.11ax Draft 1.0 in November 2016 and Draft 2.0 in September 2017 both failed to reach approval within the IEEE working group. Draft 2.0 received 62% approval and collected nearly 3,400 comments to be addressed. As a result, the initial sponsor ballet has been pushed back from November 2018 until May 2019, with final approval of the standard now likely to occur in December 2019 at the earliest, almost 6 months behind the initially scheduled July 2019. Any further delays to the standard process could further push back wide-scale adoption of the technology by a further 6 to 12 months. Consequently, chipset suppliers are doing everything they can to get some of the key enhancements of 802.11ax into the hands of OEMs as quickly as possible to help speed up the process and bring about a smooth and swift transition to the 802.11ax standard when it does arrive. As Table 1 demonstrates, there is already a vibrant ecosystem of both standalone Wi-Fi and combo Wi-Fi + Bluetooth 802.11ax-ready chipsets available from several different vendors. Therefore, an added incentive for chipset providers is to not risk falling behind their competitors also providing 802.11ax-ready chipsets.
Vibrant multi-vendor access point ecosystem
As Table 1 demonstrates, several 802.11ax access point chipsets have already been announced, each with different capabilities. The higher end of Quantenna and Qualcomm’s solutions are claiming to support 12 streams, 8×8 in the 5 GHz and 4×4 in the 2.4 GHz. Marvell’s premium AP solution supports 8×8, while Broadcom’s and Intel’s current portfolio maxes out at 4×4 solutions.
Qualcomm’s AP solution has already gained some traction in the market. In September 2017, Huawei launched its X-Gen Wi-Fi enterprise access point targeting campus applications utilizing Qualcomm’s chipset. Further announcements from KDDI and KT for home and commercial environments highlight Qualcomm’s potential growth in this space.
Broadcom’s Max Wi-Fi AP solutions look to be very well supported, with numerous key 802.11ax access point partnerships announced to date, including Altice, ARRIS, ASUS, D-Link, NETGEAR, Sagemcom, Technicolor, and TP-Link. Broadcom’s strong presence in the access point market looks set to continue as vendors transition to 802.11ax.
Marvell has not yet announced partners but has been sampling to lead customers from early 2017 and is expecting to gain significant traction over the next 12 months. Quantenna is strongly targeting the multi-AP mesh networking market with its solutions and is expecting to sample its QSR10R-AX chipset to early access partners in 1H 2018.
First Smartphone Solutions Hitting the Market
In contrast to the AP market, the client-level support for 802.11ax is currently only being supported by Broadcom’s BCM4375 and Qualcomm’s QCA6290/WCN3998 2×2 solutions. Qualcomm’s most recent approach is to select what it feels are some of the key future features of 802.11ax and combine them with other enhancements to Bluetooth and support for WPA3 encryption that smartphone OEMs can take advantage of immediately.
- 8×8 Sounding: Qualcomm’s WCN3998 solution supports 8×8 sounding and can enable up to four 2×2 devices to be served simultaneously via an 8×8 AP, enabling smartphones to take full advantage of 8×8 MU-MIMO APs. In contrast, devices that only support 4×4 sounding will result in an 8×8 AP that is only able to serve up to two 2×2 devices at the same time. Qualcomm’s enhancement can result in a doubling of overall network capacity and enable client devices to be served more frequently for faster throughput.
- Target Wake Time: Another key feature of the 802.11ax standard will be the introduction of TWT. This reduces the amount of time that devices need to wake up by negotiating and defining specific times for a station to access the medium. This allows the station to sleep for longer periods of time, reducing power consumption, and helps to reduce overlaps between different stations trying to access the medium. Qualcomm’s WCN3998 claims an up to 67% reduction in power consumption in conjunction with its own proprietary features, particularly in the case of bandwidth-hungry applications such as video streaming.
- WPA3 Support: Qualcomm’s WCN3998 solution is the first to announce support for the Wi-Fi Alliance’s latest WPA3 security suite, announced in January 2018. ABI Research believes that all Wi-Fi chipsets going forward should support the very latest security enhancements to help address concerns from OEMs and consumers around high-profile encryption vulnerabilities such as KRACK.
- Enhanced Bluetooth: Qualcomm’s solution also focuses on upgrades to Bluetooth, promising support for the upcoming enhancements in the Bluetooth standard that will help deliver key improvements for higher quality audio and better support the growing importance of voice control as a user interface. Qualcomm’s solution also claims to offer a 75% improvement in battery life when paired with its QCC5100 Low Power Bluetooth SoC and hopes to enable the next generation of cable-free Bluetooth earbuds with improved audio quality.
Qualcomm’s purpose in the introduction of these chipsets is not to show that 802.11ax is ready in its current form, but to offer OEMs an early start on some of 802.11ax’s key features while addressing more immediate needs of the market such as improvements in audio quality and the desire for better security features. Qualcomm claims that there is a lot of interest among OEMs that want to address the major business needs of improving performance and capacity without waiting for the full features of 802.11ax, and Qualcomm is hoping that its combination of pre-standard features, Bluetooth enhancements, 8×8 sounding, and WPA3 support will be able to offer a compelling enough reason for OEMs to adopt its 802.11ax-ready solution versus the competition.
Broadcom’s BCM4375 Max Wi-Fi solution is a Bluetooth 5.0+ and Wi-Fi combo chip targeting the smartphone market. In addition to the aforementioned support for TWT and MU-MIMO and 4×4 sounding, Broadcom’s solutions emphasize other key features of the upcoming 802.11ax standard, including:
- OFDMA: This technique divides the radio channel into multiple smaller sub-channels, each with slightly different frequencies. These narrower channels are then used to transmit data to multiple users at the same time. This helps to reduce frequency fading and interference, resulting in increased throughput and more efficient use of the spectrum. This technology is also utilized in currently adopted 4G cellular networks.
- Spatial Reuse: New spatial reuse techniques are being introduced in 802.11ax to help support more simultaneous transmissions. The length of time it treats the medium as busy is less conservative than in current implementations and as a result will provide more efficient sharing of spectrum resources.
Broadcom and Qualcomm are the market leaders in smartphone Wi-Fi. Broadcom has a significant presence in flagship devices including the likes of Apple, Samsung, and Huawei, and its combo chipsets are often the connectivity solution of choice for vendors developing their own application processors. Qualcomm has an enormous presence in the application processor space, and its integrated connectivity is utilized by many leading vendors including Xiaomi, OPPO, Samsung, Huawei, Vivo, and LeEco, among others. Qualcomm’s WCN3998 solution will be integrated in upcoming Snapdragon platforms. Both vendors will be hoping their continued innovations in this space will help incentivize OEMs to upgrade to 802.11ax solutions in the near future.
Opportunities and challenges with pre-standard chipsets
However, the question for OEMs is whether they should wait until the standard is more stable before adopting an 802.11ax-ready solution. A wait-and-see approach could arguably result in a longer lead time, and some OEMs may lose out to those who are proactive in getting their designs ready for the full version of the standard. Some in the industry believe that due to the additional complexity of the 802.11ax standard, it is important to get 802.11ax chipsets into the hands of engineers sooner rather than later to help them build devices around the new features. If an OEM does decide to hold back, their first devices integrating an 802.11ax chipset may come 6 to 18 months behind that of the competition.
Device OEMs have traditionally been hesitant to adopt solutions before standardization. At this time, chipset vendors cannot guarantee that their 802.11ax chipsets will be compatible with the final standard. There is a risk that chipsets arriving on the market too early may not be compatible with the full standard, and as interoperability is not guaranteed, a solution from one chipset vendor may not be fully compatible or offer limited performance gains with a solution from another. Moreover, it is not always guaranteed that early deployments can simply be upgraded to the finalized standard of 802.11ax when it arrives in late 2019. Also, while these 802.11ax-ready chipsets can undoubtedly bring about improvements in performance, they may not yet be compelling enough for OEMs to justify upgrading, and some may wait for the more comprehensive features of 802.11ax to be introduced to be able to demonstrate more significant upgrades on their existing solutions.
Ultimately, some OEMs may wait until Draft 3.0 is completed and approved before adopting the technology. Others will want to take advantage of these immediate benefits, and Broadcom and Qualcomm in the smartphone space, among numerous others on the AP side, are well placed to provide solutions to those who do. As Table 1 demonstrates, there is already a competitive landscape among Wi-Fi chipset vendors for 802.11ax solutions, and combined, these are likely to help narrow the time between standard ratification and deployment to the market.
In conclusion, Tier One OEMs should consider using 802.11ax-ready features to test the water in some advanced devices to demonstrate the new capabilities of the standard and investigate potential opportunities that 802.11ax may unlock for them. However, these players may be reluctant to take the risk of integrating these features in their flagship devices. For the challengers among Tier Two OEMs, implementing 802.11ax-ready chipsets could give them the opportunity to differentiate and win market share.