Supplier comments signal faster wi-fi for next iPhone, analyst says

By Aaron Pressman
June 3, 2016

Rumors about the upcoming iPhone update, expected in the fall, have been pretty underwhelming so far with not much expected beyond improved cameras, more storage, and perhaps the demise of the headphone jack.

But there could be a surprise to the wireless capabilities of the upcoming iPhone, dubbed the “iPhone 7” by analysts, based on comments made Thursday by the head of one of Apple’s top chip suppliers. The surprise improvement could be the inclusion of a new, much faster version of Wi-Fi known as WiGig, or 802.11ad, which would allow for wireless video streaming at 4K ultra-high definition resolution, quicker gaming connections between devices, and other cool features, according to one analyst. Apple added the ability for iPhones to record 4K video last year.

“I estimate the iPhone 7 could feature that,” Neil Shah, research director at Counterpoint Technology Market Research, said after hearing comments from Hock Tan, CEO of wireless chip maker Broadcom. “It makes sense for Apple to upgrade to ad.”

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The notion of upgraded Wi-Fi features also matches with recent reports that Apple was briefly out of stock of some of its Wi-Fi routers that rely on the older 802.11ac standard, which was added in the last router update three years ago. Apple would likely also upgrade its Apple TV set-top box, which doesn’t currently have WiGig or 4K video capability of any kind, Shah said. Sales of 4K TV sets have been slow, but prices have dropped well below $1,000 this year. One-third of consumers said they expect to upgrade in a recent survey by NPD.

Apple didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a quarterly earnings call on Thursday night, Broadcom CEO Tan said his company is already getting ready for orders for the next iPhone. That smartphone will incorporate some cutting edge innovations from his company, the new entity formed when Avago acquired Broadcom for $37 billion last year, Tan said.

One caveat: Like most other Apple suppliers, Tan is reticent to mention Apple by name. Instead, he ensured that listeners were aware he was speaking about the Cupertino, Calif.-based iPhone maker by referring to the company as “a large North American smartphone customer,” of which there is, of course, only one.

The large customer will boost business at Broadcom “as they transition to their next-generation platform, enhanced by a substantial increase in classic Avago’s RF content in this new handset [and] classic Broadcom’s wireless connectivity content will also increase,” Tan said during the call with Wall Street analysts. “We anticipate our wireless connectivity business to continue to drive significant innovation for mobile Wi-Fi and Bluetooth applications, and expect this product line to be a very key long-term contributor to our wireless segment.”

Tan didn’t mention WiGig specifically, and Apple is rarely on the cutting edge when it adds features to the iPhone. Analyst Shah said he was estimating that Apple would add WiGig based on the comments. “Other than that from Broadcom, I can’t think about any other newer, advanced features in the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth space,” he said.

Competitors have also been pushing WiGig chips for phones. Announced in January, the first smartphone with WiGig capability, the LeTV Max, used a Qualcomm chipset.

The super-fast standard can transfer data at a maximum rate of seven gigabits per second in theory, or about 20 times faster than Wi-Fi using under the current “ac” standard. It operates in the 60 Ghz radio frequency band, which is less crowded than the 2.5-GHz and 5-GHz bands of current Wi-Fi standards, but doesn’t travel as far or penetrate walls as well, making it more appropriate for in-room video streaming to an Apple TV and similar applications. A new iPhone would likely still rely on the “ac” standard for browsing the web and other data needs.

A Broadcom executive noted the benefits of adding the faster “ad” standard to phones in a blog post last year. “A range of up to 12 feet makes 802.11ad Wi-Fi perfect for in-room, point-to-point applications such as wireless connectivity between a mobile device and the TV,” Lewis Brewster, general manager of wireless connectivity, wrote. “Tri-band solutions incorporating 802.11ac and 802.11ad will deliver a seamless experience using whatever works best for a particular distance and application, allowing consumers to surf and stream at lightning fast speeds.”

Apple most recently upgraded its Wi-Fi line up two years ago by adding the “ac” standard to the iPhone 6, speeding up the maximum transfer rate to a theoretical 433 Mbps from 300 Mbps.

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