Gaining Several Decibels Over the Air With Specialized Antennas

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Over the next several years, key tailwinds favoring the high-performance antennas include greater consumption of Wi-Fi data driven by proliferation of devices, an increasing need to support high-quality video over Wi-Fi, and rising use of real-time applications (such as gaming and live streaming on social networks).

Semiconductors and wireless analyst Anil Doradla believes the key issue that is becoming increasingly important is RF antenna performance. “In the past, Wi-Fi systems relied on simple implementations of antennas because low-quality designs were good enough to sustain the meager connections that consumer products required,” he explained. “Consequently, there was little (or no) focus on increasing the sophistication of antenna systems. However, demand for higher bandwidth and more consistent wireless connections has created a need for the complex antenna systems.”

Wireless technology has grown rapidly since its introduction into the United States in the 1980s for use in cellular phones to encompass internet usage, email, and running connected applications for business, entertainment, and media. The number of connected devices has exploded over the past few decades with the rise of the internet and ubiquitous broadband connectivity.

The most prevalent form of wireless connectivity is Wi-Fi, which is most commonly used in wireless local area networks (WLANs). Wi-Fi was standardized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in the late 1990s and has since developed through several generations of connectivity technology and related network standards. Wi-Fi is used in computers, routers, smartphones, gaming devices, tablets, and broadband access systems, among many other applications. In addition, many similar wireless protocols have been introduced to the market that also use antenna systems, including LTE, DECT, LPD, Bluetooth, ZigBee, near-field communication (NFC), and GPS.

In regard to bandwidth consumption, it has become clear that the future belongs to over-the-top (OTT) content streaming. This is evidenced by the rise of services such as Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube; by 2020, it is estimated that 62% of the U.S. population will subscribe to OTT services, up from 47% in 2015. As a result of OTT growth, service providers are increasingly focused on providing higher bandwidth into the home by introducing complex Wi-Fi devices that require an increasing number of antennas per device.

Over recent years, the IEEE has increasingly adopted advanced techniques focused on improving quality of service, latency, and throughput. A key component of that goal has been the use of higher-order multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) and multiple-user MIMO (MU-MIMO) streams that allow multiple consumers to simultaneously connect to a WLAN device such as a router more efficiently. Over the years, these MIMO streams have become more complex and have progressed from 1x1 streams to 2x2, 4x4, and currently 8x8 MU-MIMO technology, with 12x12 on the horizon. As higher-order MIMO devices become more common, which Doradla believes will occur to a greater extent in 2017 and 2018, the number of antennas employed in each device will increase.

The rising demand for higher-order MIMO connections such as the newly introduced 802.11ac Wave 3 8x8 MU-MIMO solution places increasing pressure on antenna companies to design more sophisticated, efficient antennas into smaller devices. This has led to increasing industry use of smart antennas, or active antennas, which use algorithms to identify signals and calculate more accurate beamforming parameters.

For more information on the semiconductor and wireless companies covered by Anil Doradla, please contact your William Blair representative.

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