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What do you really need?

Although video streaming does need higher throughput than audio, it certainly doesn't need 100Mbps+! As the rule-of-thumb table below shows, standard resolution TV can stream very nicely at 5Mbps, and HDTV resolution streams can run over a wide range of speeds, with the "sweet spot" around 20Mbps.

Standard Application Bit rate
28 - 500kbps
Standard TV (480i)
3 - 5Mbps
DVD / HD (720p, 1080i)
6 - 25Mbps
MPEG 4, DivX
Portable video, "VHS-quality" TV
64kbps - 4Mbps
Table 1: Multimedia Formats and Bit rates

Any consumer entertainment product manufacturer seriously working on wireless streaming video (and any consumer who has experienced the "freedom" of wireless networking) knows that wireless communications are by nature highly unreliable. These industry giants know they'd better have systems that can deliver acceptable pictures under very adverse signal - and therefore throughput - conditions, or the products will stay on the shelves.

The real smart ones - including Panasonic and Toshiba - are pursuing IP-over-coax systems and wired delivery systems in addition to wireless. Coax is likely to be present in any room where serious, i.e. high definition, video watching will take place, and wires will always beat wireless for reliable delivery of high-speed data. Makers of high performance streaming video products also realize that they'll probably need to move to 802.11a to get the clearer spectrum and larger number of channels needed to deliver high-definition video, or multiple lower definition streams.

The real performance issue is to maintain high (enough) data rate over the desired range. For residential applications, the problem is not so much long range, as it is a relatively "closed" environment that tends to quickly knock down signal strength, or bounce signals around like crazy, creating lots of multipath.

One way to get a high data rate is to start out high and expect to lose speed relatively quickly. This seems to be the approach that all the 802.11g throughput enhancements are taking. Another approach would be to start out at a high enough rate for the intended application (with some margin thrown in for buffer) and maintain that rate with only slight degradation over the target area of coverage. This second approach focuses more on range improvement than boosting maximum data rate.

So why aren't wireless chip manufacturers working on improving range? Maybe it's because networking companies got so burned by the range claims they used to prominently feature on their product packages. The average wireless networking product buyer may not be able (or inclined) to check throughput specs, but they sure can take out a tape measure and check distance claims. In many cases, though, a tape measure wasn't even needed, since some products didn't even make it from one room to another!

Strangely enough, the only manufacturer I see focusing on range performance improvement is the one probably most burned by its distance claims - Atheros. 802.11a still has a "doesn't go as far" reputation from the poor distance performance of Atheros' first generation 11a products. 802.11a products using the chipset didn't have the range of 802.11b products, were more expensive and buyers left the products on the shelves.

Somewhere in Atheros, though, a hard lesson was learned, because from my testing, Atheros-based products using their current-generation chipsets maintain higher throughput over longer ranges than any of their competitors, and do it in both 2.4GHz (11b and g) and 5GHZ (11a) bands. Atheros still needs to get this message through, however. You can read their whitepaper (PDF) on the subject, or my report if you'd like an independent view.

Although Atheros is catching crap on Super-G for the interference problems that are sometimes caused by its channel bonding feature, they could shut channel bonding off and still have the best 11g radio for video streaming due to the superior radio performance of their current generation chipset. And this is before they enable the XR (eXtended Range) technology which promises to flatten and extend the throughput vs. range curve even further for both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands.

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