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Broadcom bullish in 802.11ac and in-car Ethernet

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Broadcom has been outlining its plans for the next year, including a big push into the 802.11ac wireless arena and a new venture for in-car Ethernet.

The company has decided to push the forthcoming 8012.11ac Wi-Fi standard in its consumer electronics hardware lines, touting a near doubling of the range of 802.11n systems, more bandwidth, improvements in battery life and a much less congested 5Gz spectrum. 802.11n was all very well, said Rahul Patel, Broadcom’s VP of mobile and wireless, but it couldn’t deal with the increase in bandwidth and connected device numbers coming, and needed an upgrade.

“At 2.4Ghz there’s only three channels, but at 5Ghz you have 20 odd channels to use so you have more power and reach, there’s a much wider highway for the traffic,” he said at a press briefing in San Francisco. “There will be a point where 20 channels won’t be sufficient, but for next few years we have a solution, I’m hoping.”

He said that using a three-by-three antenna at 80MHz, an 802.11ac user could get about 1.3Gb per second download speeds, and at 160MHz this would rise to around 2.6Gbps. As a bonus the new kit will be backwards compatible with 802.11n systems, so there was no need to rip-and-replace infrastructure.

The IEEE hasn’t ratified the standard as yet, but the Wi-Fi Alliance is holding its first 802.11ac plugfest in the first quarter of next year and Patel said that in the past it took about three such events to iron out the major kinks. This should have the first solid hardware in production by the end of 2012, with full ratification of the standard in December 2013 – but as with 802.11n, this will simply mean a firmware update on existing 802.11ac kit.

“We don’t have two different groups competing," he said. "It’s everyone behind one standard, all companies including OEMS, chipset manufacturers and all the other usual suspects."

That’s not to say there isn’t competition. Patel dismissed wireless HDMI as too expensive for the mass market, and with too limited a range, although it was fast, he said. WiGig is also capable of very high bandwidth, but he said 802.11ac was the best mass-market solution.

In the last year the company has also made a new move into automotive networking, using a new twisted Ethernet cable that is both light enough, and sufficiently shielded, to provide very fast data connections at a low cost.

Other than the engine block itself, the wiring and electronics is the biggest materials cost of a car, said Kevin Brown, VP of infrastructure and networking at Broadcom, and manufacturers are looking for ways to wire up cars cheaply and with minimum weight penalties. There’s very little IP networking at present, but BMW will be bringing out a model in 2013 with 360-degree camera viewing that uses the new twisted pair Ethernet.

The BMW case has been crucial to selling the concept to manufacturers, Brown said, since it can replace heavy, expensive custom cables used in the past by the German company. Ethernet provides much more bandwidth than is strictly necessary, but the data demands of cars would only increase, he said.

“I’ve heard of cases where a big, luxury car goes in for a service and they are trying to upgrade the software via a RS232 cable – it can take all day,” he explained. “Ethernet’s fast, and good for another 20-30 years of data.”

The cable can also be used to provide power other Ethernet, at 15W, 30W or even 60W ranges, although existing standards may need to be modified to accommodate different car voltages. So far BMW, Hyundai, and Land Rover, along with NXP and Freescale, have signed up to promote the technology under the auspices of the OPEN (One-Pair Ether-Net) Alliance Special Interest Group (SIG). ®

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