At a recent event in San Francisco, Qualcomm QCOM +0% announced the latest generation of its Wi-Fi 6 chipsets intended for routers, access points, and smartphones. While Qualcomm is very well known for its mobile 5G chipsets, the company is also a leader in Wi-Fi. Qualcomm is not alone in its support of the new 802.11ax standard, also known as Wi-Fi 6—both Broadcom AVGO +0% and Intel INTC +0%, Qualcomm’s biggest competitors, have Wi-Fi 6 solutions for infrastructure and devices. Qualcomm’s differentiation lies in its strong wireless portfolio and its ability to marry its Wi-Fi 6 strategy with its 5G technologies. Let’s take a closer look at the new chipsets.
What was announced
Qualcomm made two significant announcements in San Francisco: one on the infrastructure side and one on the mobile device side. On the infrastructure side, Qualcomm announced the Pro Series Platform, a new chipset for access points and routers to support Wi-Fi 6. The Pro Series includes chipsets with a range of connectivity capabilities to satisfy the different needs of different performance and price levels of access points and routers. The Pro Series consists of the Pro Series 400, 600, 800 and 1200 chipsets. All feature a quad-core A53 processor design that scales from 1.0 GHz on the Pro Series 400 to 2.2 GHz on the Pro Series 1200 chipset. The chipsets also support different numbers of spatial streams, affecting the total wireless capacity: the Pro Series 400 supports 4 spatial streams of Wi-Fi 6 connectivity and the Pro Series 1200 supports 12 spatial streams (hence the nomenclature of the chipsets).
The key technologies in the Pro Series include 8×8 radio support and MU-MIMO in the uplink and downlink—both of which are designed to improve the user experience and support multiple users simultaneously. One technology that Qualcomm leverages from the cellular side is OFDMA, which works on both the uplink and downlink and delivers support for 37 users per 5 GHz channel (which, depending on the available spectrum, can support up to 1500 clients per access point). Qualcomm’s Pro Series platform also supports 1024 QAM modulation. This delivers more bits per megahertz, and according to Qualcomm enables up to 38% higher raw throughput compared to 802.11AC (Wi-Fi 5).
The announcement event featured a tour de force of partner appearances, including Cisco, Commscope (Ruckus), Cisco Meraki, Netgear, Rivet Networks, Boingo, AMD , and Microsoft MSFT +0%. All were in attendance to discuss how they would implement Qualcomm’s Wi-Fi 6 technologies into future products. Netgear even pre-announced its next-generation Orbi wireless mesh router at the event, which will be available in October. Netgear’s David Henry, SVP Connected Home Products, said the Orbi Wi-Fi 6 mesh router would utilize Qualcomm’s fastest Pro Series 1200 Wi-Fi 6 chipset and would carry the AX6000 Tri-band performance tier. It will purportedly support 12 Wi-Fi 6 streams, with 1.5 Gbps on 2.4 GHz and 2.5 Gbps on 5 GHz. Additionally, it will feature a dedicated 2.4 Gbps link between routers. According to Henry, the new Wi-Fi 6 mesh router will be the company’s fastest ever and the industry’s fastest to date.
On the mobile side, Qualcomm made several announcements regarding its FastConnect mobile subsystem. First, it announced that the previously announced FastConnect 6200 was already shipping in most Snapdragon 855 devices, showing a plethora of device OEM design wins already on the market. Second, Qualcomm announced the next generation of the connectivity subsystem, the FastConnect 6800. The FastConnect 6200’s feature set includes WPA3 security, Bluetooth 5.0, 1024 QAM modulation on both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz channels, OFDMA, Target Wake Time, and MU-MIMO 8×8 sounding for compatibility with the latest Wi-Fi 6 routers. The FastConnect 6800 takes that feature set to another level, adding Bluetooth 5.1, uplink MU-MIMO, and simultaneous dual-band.
With FastConnect 6200, which was limited to ‘WI-Fi 6 Ready,’ Qualcomm coupled some capabilities from the company’s Wi-Fi chip and applications processor. The FastConnect 6800, on the other hand, fully supports Wi-Fi 6, and appears to have been decoupled into its own SoC. Still, the company was very careful to not call it a chipset or a platform, insisting it’s a “subsystem.” This implies that the capabilities are designed into the applications processor SoC, but they are not. Even the block diagram that the company showed on stage made it look like the SoC is built into the applications processor, which it is not. The understanding that I have is that the FastConnect 6200 is dependent on the Snapdragon SoC for complete Wi-Fi 6 connectivity while the FastConnect 6800 is not. Both are technically their own chips and calling it a subsystem is frankly just confusing.
Qualcomm’s Wi-Fi 6 announcements were comprehensive. We’re nearing the next big phase of Wi-Fi’s evolution, where Wi-Fi starts to behave more like a cellular network. This is a good thing because it will improve the quality of service and speeds. The great thing about Wi-Fi 6 is that you won’t have to wait until all of your devices support it to see the benefits. Speeds will improve as you upgrade your client devices to Wi-Fi 6 one by one. Some phones (like most Snapdragon 855 phones) are already shipping with Wi-Fi 6, along with some PC laptops (pushed by Intel and its Wi-Fi 6 initiative). I expect that Broadcom will be impacted the most by Qualcomm’s new Wi-Fi 6 chipset announcements, but competition is a good thing. I’m excited to see how these new chips propel the industry forward into a Wi-Fi 6 future. The more devices that have Wi-Fi 6, the better everyone’s experience will be.