Today, Qualcomm is announcing full support for a new wireless transmission method that could significantly boost performance on crowded networks. The new standard, MU-MIMO (Multiple User - Multiple Input and Multiple Output) has a clunky name -- but could make a significant difference to home network speeds and make gigabit WiFi a practical reality. MU-MIMO is part of the 802.11ac Release 2 standard, so this isn't just a custom, Qualcomm-only feature -- though we don't know exactly what other implementations will look like, or the degree of cross-compatibility we'll see in market.
In order to explain what makes MIMO special, let's first talk about the current system, dubbed SU (Single User) MIMO. In SU-MIMO mode, a wireless router creates time slices for every device it detects on the network. Every active device on the network slows down the total system bandwidth -- the router has to pay attention to every device, and it can only pay attention to one phone, tablet, or laptop at a time.
The difference between single-user and multi-user configurations is that where SU can only serve one client at a time and can therefore only allocate a fraction of total bandwidth to any given device, MU can create groups of devices and communicate with all three simultaneously.
The benefits accrue at medium range as well, Qualcomm claims that SU-MIMO would top out at 57Mbps for single-link connections to these types of clients, whereas three MU-MIMO clients could still hit 150Mbps at the same range. Furthermore, by addressing the needs of MU-MIMO devices more efficiently, the router can dedicate more time to devices that don't support the newer standard -- improving their performance on crowded networks as well.
Who Needs MU-MIMO?
If you've used wireless for any length of time, you're aware that the gap between what wireless products claim they can deliver and what they actually deliver is often enormous. Granted, Qualcomm can't do much if you've got a cat that loves nothing more than sleeping on the router, but the point is, getting full performance out of a wireless network is tricky -- and it only becomes more so when you consider that these days, the average home has 5-7 wireless devices.
According to Qualcomm, the home of the future could have as many as 20 devices on a single network, and while we're a bit dubious of that claim, there's no arguing that a connected home puts a great deal more stress on the wireless ecosystem. Qualcomm's MU-MIMO can deploy up to four 160MHz channels (though present-day hardware only uses 80MHz), which means the bandwidth capacity over 802.11ac is truly formidable.
New Hardware Deploying Late This Year
According to Qualcomm, actual hardware that supports this type of bandwidth sharing will hit the market late in Q4 or early Q1 of 2015. It plans to roll out hardware support in its own platforms across a full range of enterprise, consumer, and home appliances, further enabling the so-called Internet of Things. (IoT).
If you've been considering an upgrade to an older home router, it may be worth holding off until this next refresh cycle. No word yet on pricing or specific models, but Qualcomm noted that it's working with multiple industry partners to bring these products to market.