January 10, 2012, 7:05 AM — Goodbye Wi-Fi ... at least as we've known Wi-Fi.
At this week's Consumer Electronics Show, next-generation radio chips will finally make real what most people have only imagined for the past three years: Wi-Fi connections that measure their data rates in gigabits per second.
And if you're in Las Vegas at CES 2012, vendors will show next-generation Wi-Fi in two different frequencies: 5GHz, for what will eventually be the IEEE 802.11ac standard, and 60GHz, for what will eventually be 802.11ad. The former can reach data rates of 1.3 gigabits per second, the latter, up to 7Gbps.
Usable throughput for the new Wi-Fi will be less, and the actual rate, and resulting throughput, depends on a range of factors including the width of the channels and the number of data streams and antennas. And initial products, due as early as mid-2012, likely won't achieve the maximum data rates. But by contrast, 802.11n typically has a data rate of 150 megabits per second.
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Initial products, likely a blend of infrastructure devices such as residential routers, access points and the like on the one hand, and client plug-in dongles for PCs and flat panel TVs, are expected as early as mid-2012. Both new specifications are backward compatible with the existing Wi-Fi standards, so your 11n tablet or smartphone will connect to an 11ac wireless router, even though you won't get the benefit of an end-to-end 11ac boost. Likewise, your new 11ac dongle for your laptop will still connect at 11n or 11g rates to an existing access point.
Both of the formal IEEE standards are still in process, and won't be final until probably 2013. But, as with previous wireless standards, vendors and the Wi-Fi Alliance are forging ahead with products that track the current standards closely. At this point, most observers expect any IEEE changes to be minimal, and that software updates will bring the products up-to-date.