Nalini Muppala

Analysis, observations, perspectives on mobile space

802.11n Tipping point?

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Is it time for 802.11n to be deployed widely in mobile devices? Recent events, enlisted below, lead me to think so.

“Draft-N” no more. On Friday, IEEE announced ratification of 802.11n Wireless LAN standard. The specification was in draft stage for over 6 years, but that did not stop several wireless semiconductor vendors from going into production – especially so after the Task group assured Wi-Fi alliance that any changes from then on would ensure hardware compatibility. The parts already in production will be brought up to the standard with a firmware upgrade.

There are multiple 802.11n solutions for mobile device designers to choose from. To cite  a few examples: Broadcom announced sampling BCM4329 in December 2008; Marvell announced a single chip 802.11n WLAN solution at Mobile World Congress 2009; Qualcomm announced a single chip 802.11n WLAN solution for handsets and mobile devices in June 2009. Taking it one step further, ST-Ericsson recently announced the first 45 nm 802.11n part, to be available in 2H 2010.

We have a popular sighting. A teardown analysis from iFixit shows that the recently released 3rd generation iPod Touch sports Broadcom’s better combo part BCM4329, which supports 802.11n. (It replaces BCM4325 which provided 802.11a/b/g alongisde BlueTooth, FM Reception.) BCM4329 is a “65 nm single-chip combo device with single-band (2.4 GHz) 802.11b/g/n or dual-band (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) 802.11a/b/g/n, plus Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR and FM receiver and transmitter features”.  Neither 802.11n nor FM are currently enabled. If there are no technical issues and if the power consumption is about what was promised by Broadcom, it is just a matter of time before the latest incarnation of iPod Touch starts touting 801.11n speeds. Although currently not enabled officially, the software is known to hint support for 802.11n built in since iPhone OS 3.0. If we go by the past design cycles of iPod Touch and iPhone, next version of iPhone might sport a 802.11n solution.

Networking IC makers Ralink Technology and Realtek Semiconductor are indicating that shipments of 802.11n chipsets would overtake 802.11g. Although most of these parts go into laptops and netbooks, the momentum behind 802.11n is clear.

Corporate customers sitting on the fence because of the “Draft-N” label, would jump in now. Mobile Network Operators should feel better at the prospect of lesser multimedia loading over their cellular networks.

With the standard ratified and multiple vendors touting single-chip parts at power levels acceptable in mobile devices, we should start seeing more phones with 802.11n support. To begin with, smartphones will lead the way. Will the ratification of the standard be the tipping point?

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Written by Nalini Kumar Muppala

September 14, 2009 at 9:11 pm

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