Marvell: demanding Wi-Fi users require quick roll-out of new 802.11ax standard

Tuesday 19 December 2017 | 13:32 CET | Background

Marvell Technology has announced chipsets for the next generation of Wi-Fi systems. The IEEE standard 802.11ax is the successor to 802.11ac, with a range of improvements. With more antennas and more efficient modulation, the industry standards group expects speeds 4x faster Wi-Fi than 11ac, delivering up to 4.8 Gbps in the 5 GHz band. Marvell expects that within two years, 11ac will no longer be enough for end-users. 

Marvell, based in Santa Clara in California, was started in 1995 and develops components such as chipsets and ethernet controllers. Its three main applications are storage, connectivity and networking. The company has been involved from the start with the development of Wi-Fi and also contributed to the standardisation. Telecompaper spoke with Mark Montierth, Vice President and General Manager, and Prabhu Lowganathan, Senior Director of Marketing, both active in the Wireless Connectivity Business Unit at Marvell.

Complete implementation, no half solutions

Marvell unveiled an 802.11ax product family. It offers three different products, built around the same CPU and components at the physical layer. Montierth noted that OFDMA and MU-MIMO is also supported in the uplink, and not just the downlink. With this, the company wants to deliver the first complete implementation, rather than the previous 'half' solutions.

Marvell developed the 88W9068 SoC for premium enterprise access points, with 8x8 streams in the 5.0 GHz band in order to provide Wi-Fi for a large number of users in busy areas. While users likely still have a smartphone with 11ac, the access point is also backwards compatible.

The 88W9064 is aimed at smaller business access points and high-end consumer products, with 4x4 streams in both the 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz bands. The 88W9096S is a version for set-top boxes, with 2x4 streams. 

The 88W9064 and 88W9096S both come with Bluetooth 5, for remote controls and to make it easier to configure devices automatically. The reference designs and software have been offered in small batches for manufacturers to test since early 2017. Marvell said it's already won multiple contracts, but the names remain confidential. At CES in January, the company will demo products with brands using the chips and planning to launch products next year. 

Wi-Fi essential in smartphone era

Wi-Fi was originally developed by NCR as a means of connecting cash registers to a computer. The development accelerated when Apple decided to use the technology in Mac computers, followed by other PC makers. With the widespread adoption of smartphones, Wi-Fi has now become a daily essential. The IEEE standard 802.11 has grown to a family, with four variants especially common: 11b, 11g, 11n and 11ac. These are the standards for the two most important spectrum bands, 2.4 and 5.0 GHz. There are many other variants, such as sub-1 GHz (HaLow) and 60 GHz (WiGig), but these are used much less frequently. 

With each new version, the capacity is increased. With 11g, OFDM was introduced, while 11n added support for multiple antennas (MIMO). More antennas means more speed and devices no longer have to wait their turn to connect.  

The new 11ax standard is even faster. With the improved modulation, 1024QAM, more information can be sent in each hertz of radio spectrum. OFDMA means the capacity is used more efficiently, based on the type of traffic. Speeds of up 4.8 Gbps will be possible with 8x8 antennas, double the previous 2.4 Gbps with 4x4. The previous standard 802.11ac works only in the 5.0 GHz band, which has more capacity and less congestion. The latest version brings the benefits to both bands. Each version is compatible with its predecessors. Multi-user MIMO is also good for households where Wi-Fi use is spread over multiple generations of devices, such as a smartphone with 11ac and older devices such as a games console with 11g or 11n.

Bluetooth built-in

Marvell has included native support for Bluetooth 5 in its 11ax family. This will facilitate remote controls and other connected devices. Bluetooth pairing also makes it easier to configure automatically device installation and settings. In addition, the combination of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth can help optimise location functions. 

MIMO and beamforming assume that a receiver is operating in a limited area. A smaller antenna 'sees' only a smart bit of the horizon. Distance is more difficult to measure in that limited area, but Bluetooth can help. Precise indoor location is an important feature for companies in certain industries, for example to tell an employee in a distribution centre or a customer in a shopping centre exactly where to find a product. 

Short product cycles in consumer market

While 11ac is still reaching the mass market, the commercial introduction of 11ax is just around the corner. Smartphones and other end-user devices already offer 11ac for a few years. The latest Wi-Fi routers for the consumer market also have ‘11ac Wave 2’, which supports gigabit speeds and multiple antennas so satellite units can be connected. 

The vast majority of households use the modem/router/set-top box they received from their provider, and this slows down the renewal rate. Research by the Dutch spectrum regulator Agentschap Telecom shows that congestion in the 2.4 GHz band remains high, while use of the 5.0 GHz band has increased in recent years. On the positive side, many providers use a software fix to stop their devices from falling back to the ineffecient 802.11b protocol.

Demanding users to drive faster roll-out of 11ax

Support for 11ac is still relatively limited a few years after its launch. Marvell expects that adoption of 11ax will go much faster, due to the changing market for broadband providers. Division manager Mark Montierth expects that 11ac does not offer much future beyond the next two years. There is a new kind of consumer, who is much more demanding, and wants to be able use high-bandwidth applications such as 4K IPTV, video chat and VR/AR devices.  

For a long time, the downlink was much more important than the uplink, and providers incorporated a strong asymmetry of speeds in their plans. New applications like virtual reality require high speeds for both download and upload at the same time, meaning a change in how broadband is delivered. The smart home also creates new needs, with dozens of new devices connecting to the network. 

Five years ago, routers often cost nothing, Montierth noted. ISPs subsidised the devices, indoor coverage was not guaranteed, and customer service was not prepared for questions about other devices, such as smartphones. Since then the situation has changed, and providers are faced with a growing number of customers wanting better Wi-Fi coverage to connect more devices. Delivering the best Wi-Fi coverage is now a key part of broadband marketing and efforts to keep customers satisfied and loyal. 

TV viewing is also changing, with time shifting and use of more second screens. Copyright holders for TV series and films demand water-tight digital security. MoCa (Multimedia over Cable) makes that possible over the in-home coax cabling, but more and more viewing of premium video is shifting to wireless connections. To remain relevant in the value chain, TV and broadband providers needs to follow these trends. 

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