New Broadcom SoCs promise cheaper 802.11ac routers

Last week, we talked about two of the very first routers to feature 5G Wi-Fi connectivity (also known as 802.11ac). The devices promise transfer rates as high as 1.3Gbps sans cables, which sounds pretty exciting... but the entry price is less tantalizing: $199.99 for the flagship router, and $179.99 for its slower derivative.

5G Wi-Fi routers will go down in price over time, though, and Broadcom has announced something that ought to accelerate the trend: two new system-on-a-chip devices, the BCM4708x and StrataGX, that consolidate router functionality into single pieces of silicon, all with 5G support.

Broadcom aims the BCM4708x at home routers and the StrataGX at devices for small and medium businesses, but the chips seem to be architecturally identical. They both combine a high-performance processor, a Gigabit Ethernet switch, a Gigabit Ethernet PHY, a USB 3.0 controller, and traffic accelerators into a single die—and Broadcom says they're the first in the industry to do so. Here's a top-down view of the architecture:

(Not pictured: Broadcom's BCM43XX 802.11n and 802.11ac chips, which connect to the BCM4708x and StrataGX via PCI Express 2.0.)

According to Broadcom, this SoC architecture manages, in one chip, what previous-gen offerings needed five chips to achieve. The result is a nice reduction in both cost and power consumption. Broadcom wasn't willing to discuss exact pricing, but it did say the BCM4708x and StrataGX are about 40% more power efficient than older, multi-chip solutions.

As icing on the cake, the BCM4708x and StrataGX have a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU of the sort found in today's smartphones. Broadcom claims the CPU is about five times quicker than what's available in most routers these days. Also, thanks to the on-die traffic accelerators that handle the heavy lifting, the CPU is free to run software other than networking applications—think downloadable apps.

Broadcom is currently sampling the BCM4708x and StrataGX. It expects production begin in the second half of the year. The first routers to feature them will likely still be high-end offerings, but Broadcom expects prices to drop over time, and it made it clear that servicing the $99 price point is part of the plan. The firm predicts a "very high rate of adoption" for 802.11ac base chips next year. Come 2014 and 2015, it says, most Wi-Fi devices will be 5G-enabled.

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