Today's Wi-Fi standards rival copper-wired Ethernet networks in raw speed. Using multiple antennas and ultra-high frequency bands, 802.11n connections can top out at 150 megabits per second. Not too long ago, even the fastest connections in corporate data centers stopped at just 100 mbps. Welcome to the inexorable march of progress.

And the beat goes on. Counting the pre-standard "draft" products, 11n has five years of beard graying on its chin, and the time is ripe for another speed boost. Enter the gigabit-barrier busters of 802.11ac, shipping soon with Broadcom (NAS: BRCM) chips running the show.

Even the single-antenna baseline of 11ac outruns the fastest products of the previous generation by a wide margin. The new standard is, once again, just in the draft stage of IEEE proceedings, but the quick progress of 11n from raw draft to shipping products and future-proof compatibility should be reassuring. Early draft-standard routers should still work together with more recent Wi-Fi smartphones, netbooks, and media devices.

Broadcom may be the first chip supplier out of the gate, but others won't be far behind. Privately held Quantenna will also show off 11ac products at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The Atheros division of Qualcomm (NAS: QCOM) is also excited about the 11ac revolution and should be champing at the bit on the starting line as we speak.

The first Broadcom-powered consumer devices with 11ac speeds should ship in the back half of 2012. That said, the new standard won't make a measurable difference to your broadband experience for quite some time. Unless you happen to live in Kansas City, where gigabit fiber services should be available any day now at a reasonable price, a broadband connection fast enough to saturate that old 11n home network costs an extremely pretty penny.

Just give it a few years and the Carousel of Progress should turn this new standard into a very marketable product indeed. Just remember that digital video hardly existed when 11n burst upon the scene, and only 30% of Americans had a broadband connection in 2005.

Better, faster, stronger networks are creeping into everyday life. Broadcom, Qualcomm, and other communications chip makers are perfectly poised to extract profits from the next generation of networks. For ideas on how to invest in this trend in 2012, check out 3 stocks riding the mobile media and data explosion.

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinion, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Check out Anders' holdings and bio, or follow him on Twitter and Google+. We have a disclosure policy.

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