Qualcomm rolled out its latest line of Wi-Fi chips with nearly 40% more throughput for use in infrastructure as it seeks to steal market share from its biggest rival Broadcom and push its business beyond smartphones. The San Diego, California-based company is also tapping the growth of the Internet of Things, which is leading to more devices linked to the internet and overwhelming current Wi-Fi networks.
The Networking Pro series of chips is based on a new long-range and high-performance local networking technology, Wi-Fi 6. The chips run over a broader range of frequency bands than Wi-Fi 5, boosting the total bandwidth that can be tapped by smartphones, thermostats, headphones, laptops and other gadgets. That means more devices can be connected without overcrowding a Wi-Fi 6 network or straining the battery life of the hardware.
The new line of chips—the Networking Pro 1200, 800, 600 and 400—can support up to 12 independent streams and connect up to 1,500 devices at the same time for high-density deployments. Nick Kucharewski, general manager of wireless infrastructure and networking at Qualcomm, said it is targeted at high-end enterprise and carrier-class access points. The chips are based on 14-nanometers and have data rates of up to 6 Gbps.
Kucharewski said that “Wi-Fi 6 is a transformational reimagining of how Wi-Fi works” and is “designed to accommodate the massive surge of connected devices” straining current Wi-Fi networks.
Qualcomm is also readying for the rollout of 5G technology. The world’s largest phone chip designer, the company is trying to weather a slowdown in its core cellular modem business before the pivot to 5G technology, which is projected to be more than 10 times faster than current 4G networks. Qualcomm has started selling 5G modem chips for use in more than 150 smartphones sold by Samsung, LG, Oppo and OnePlus, among others.
Qualcomm has swiped Wi-Fi market share from Broadcom in recent years as it pushed ahead in mesh networking for gateways, modems and routers, which chain together smaller access points to widen the coverage areas in residential and retail spaces. Qualcomm is also a major player in Wi-Fi chips used in smartphones, with nearly every one of the 225 models featuring its flagship Snapdragon 855 SoC also using its Wi-Fi IP.
While Qualcomm is winning market share in high-end enterprise and consumer gear, Broadcom has long dominated the supply of chips to wireless carriers for use in standalone Wi-Fi modems. Qualcomm is aiming to siphon off Broadcom’s market share as Wi-Fi has become a key battleground: NXP is buying Marvell’s wireless technology assets for $1.75 billion and On Semiconductor is betting $1.1 billion on its acquisition of Quantenna.
Qualcomm is trying to get out ahead of rivals with its new Wi-Fi infrastructure chips. The flagship chip, the Networking Pro 1200, supports 12 streams, including 8 streams in the 5 GHz band, which helps high-performance hardware transfer data at peak speeds more often. Customers can also slice the separate Wi-Fi streams in different ways depending on the application, transforming it into a dual-radio 8×8 + 4×4 or tri-radio 4×4 + 4×4 + 4×4 device.
The chips use what is called MU-MIMO—short for multiple user, multiple input, multiple output—for both uploads and downloads to the Wi-Fi network. A second core technology inside the chips is OFDMA—orthogonal frequency division multiple access—which splits channels into smaller streams so devices are not fighting as fiercely for bandwidth. Another key advance is 1024QAM, which results in up to 38% more throughput than Wi-Fi 5.
The Networking Pro 800 supports up to 8 separate chains of Wi-Fi 6 connectivity with 1.4 GHz quad-core Cortex-A53 processor, while the Pro 600 can supply up to 6 independent Wi-Fi streams with up to 1 GHz quad-core Cortex-A53 CPU. The Pro 400 supports up to four Wi-Fi channels in both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands, supporting up to 1,000 users. The Cortex-A53 CPU inside the Pro 1200 has clock speeds of up 2.2 GHz.
The Wi-Fi chipset market is projected to grow more than 5% every year from 2019 to 2022, said International Data Corporation’s Phil Solis. Shipments based on the Wi-Fi 6 standard are set to grow from 500 million units in 2019 to more than 4 billion units in 2023, outpacing 5G modem shipments, Solis said. The new generation of Wi-Fi 6 will account for roughly 33% of all shipments in 2023, according to estimates by ABI Research.
Wi-Fi 6 is seen as a important complement to 5G, said Richard Webb, research director at IHS Markit, in a 2018 report. He said: “the requirements for network density mean that Wi-Fi will continue to play a strong support role for mobile broadband end-users and for newer applications such as the Internet of Things and smart city. We expect an uptick in carrier Wi-Fi investments through 2020, aligned with 5G network development.”