Face it; wireless connectivity is essential to our everyday lives. Our mobile phones and tablets, desktop computers, and laptops would be pretty useless without some sort of high−speed wireless connection.
But we don’t think much about wireless connections – they “just happen,” assisted now and then by a password we enter on our device (and promptly forget!). And we assume that we’ll always have reliable wireless connections wherever we go, whether through a Wi−Fi network or LTE mobile phone networks.
So here’s the drill−down. The radio bands we use for wireless are starting to get VERY congested. In fact, the primary Wi−Fi band (2.4 GHz) looks like an expressway at rush hour, especially around office buildings and university campuses. The result? Files and photos take forever to download. Videos and movies stream like they have hiccups. And videoconferences are pretty hard to watch as bandwidth slows to a crawl.
It’s like everyone decided to take a hot shower at the same time – the water pressure drops, and it turns cold pretty fast! There are only so many channels available in the 2.4 GHz band for wireless, and many Wi−Fi services are starting to push into the 5 GHz radio band as a result.
The solution? A new wireless protocol known as “channel bonding” (or, to be more precise, IEEE 802.11ac). Wireless access points and wireless modems that support this protocol can instantly bond unused 20 MHz channels to accelerate downloads and streaming times. These channels can be combined to create bandwidths of 40, 80, and even 160 MHz.
The 5 GHz radio band has 24 such channels. While the range of 5 GHz radio signals isn’t quite as far as those on 2.4 GHz, they can still pass through non−metallic walls at moderate distances. Combine channel bonding with these frequencies, and you’ll see a world of difference in upload and download times.
A laptop or “smart” TV connected to a 5 GHz wireless connection can stream video at speeds as fast as 30 to 50 megabits per second (Mb/s). That’s as fast as HD video playing from a Blu−ray disc. It’s also as fast as a broadcast network satellite uplink/downlink connection! And amazingly, it’s more than fast enough to stream Ultra HD (4K) video from Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Any gadget that needs a wireless connection can benefit from channel bonding technology. 802.11ac wireless routers and router/modem combinations are now coming to market for “Internet to the home service” from cable TV and fiber optic service providers. To take advantage, however, your smartphone/printer/camera/tablet/computer/whatever must be able to access the higher−frequency 5 GHz radio band (not all products do).
At these speeds, it’s now practical to stream full HD video from your mobile device to a TV or projector, using a bit of compression. Given the increasing importance of video in presentations and education, the timing couldn’t be better.
Is there a “next step?” Yes, and it involves an ever higher radio band – 60 GHz, where the antennas are so small they’d fit on the tip of your finger. That protocol (802.11ad, a/k/a Wireless Gigabit) is still lurking in the wings for now. Let’s see what shows up at CES in January!