The Dawn of Gigabit Connectivity

on December 12, 2017
Reading Time: 3 minutes

From cars to computers to connectivity, speed is an attractive quality to many people. I mean, who can’t appreciate devices or services that help you get things done more quickly?

While raw semiconductor chip performance has typically been—and still is—a critical enabler of fast tech devices, in many instances, it’s actually the speed of connectivity that determines their overall performance. This is especially true with the ongoing transition to cloud-based services.

The problem is, measuring connectivity speed isn’t a straightforward process. Sure, you can look for connectivity-related specs for your devices, or run online speed tests (like Speedtest.net), but very few really understand the former and, as anyone who has tried the latter knows, the results can vary widely, even throughout the course of a single day.

The simple truth is, for a lot of people, connectivity is black magic. Sure, most people have heard about different generations of cellular technology, such as 4G or the forthcoming 5G, and many even have some inkling of different WiFi standards (802.11n, 11ac,11ad, etc.). Understanding how or why your device feels fast doing a particular online task one day and on other days it doesn’t, however, well, that’s still a mystery.

Part of the reason for this confusion is that the underlying technology (and the terminology associated with it) is very complex. Wireless connectivity is a fundamentally difficult task that involves not only complex digital efforts from very sophisticated silicon components, but a layer of analog circuitry that’s tied to antennas and physical waveforms, as well as interactions with objects in the real world. Frankly, it’s amazing that it all works as well as it does.

Ironically, despite its complexity, connectivity is also something that we’ve started to take for granted, particularly in more advanced environments like the US and Western Europe. Instead of being grateful for having the kinds of speedy connections that are available to us, we’re annoyed when fast, reliable connectivity isn’t there.

As the result of all these factors, connectivity has been relegated to second-class status by many, overshadowed by talk of CPUs, GPUs, and other types of new semiconductor chip architectures. Modems, however, were arguably one of the first specialty accelerator chips, and play a more significant role than many realize. Similarly, WiFi controller chips offer significant connectivity benefits, but are typically seen as basic table stakes—not something upon which critical product distinctions or buying decisions are made.

People are starting to finally figure out how important connectivity is when it comes to their devices, however, and that’s starting to drive a different perspective around communications-focused components. One of the key driving factors for this is the evolution of wireless connectivity to speeds above 1 gigabit per second (1 Gbps). Just as the transition to 1 GHz processors was a key milestone in the evolution of CPUs, so too has the appearance of 1 Gbps wireless connectivity options enabled a new perspective on communications components such as modems and WiFi controllers.

Chipmaker Qualcomm was one of the first to talk about both Gigabit LTE for cellular broadband modems, as well as greater than 1 Gbps speeds for 802.11ac (in the 5 GHz band) and 802.11ad (in the distance-constrained 60 GHz band). Earlier this year, Qualcomm demonstrated Gigabit LTE in Australia with local Aussie carrier Telstra, and just last month, they showed offer similar technology here in the US with T-Mobile. In both cases, they were using a combination of Snapdragon 835-equipped phones—such as Samsung’s S8—which feature a Category 16 (Cat16) modem, and upgraded cellular telecom equipment from telecom equipment providers, such as Ericsson. The company also just unveiled their new Snapdragon 845 chip, expected to ship in smartphones in later 2018, that offers an even faster Cat18 modem, with maximum download speed of 1.2 Gbps.

In the case of both faster LTE and faster WiFi, communications component vendors like Qualcomm have to deploy a variety of sophisticated technologies, such as MU-MIMO (multi-user, multiple input, multiple output) transmission and antenna technologies, and 256 QAM data modulation (e.g., compression) schemes, among others.

The net result is extremely fast connection speeds that can (and likely will) have a dramatic impact on the types of cloud-based services that can be made available, as well as our quality of experience with them. There’s no denying that the technology behind these speedy connections is complicated, but with the dawn of the gigabit connectivity era, it’s time to at least acknowledge the impressive benefits these speedy connections provide.