What you need to know about HaLow, or 802.11ah Wi-Fi

wi fi 802.11ah
Credit: Network World/Stephen Sauer

Here’s a primer on the new low-power 802.11ah Wi-Fi standard, a.k.a. HaLow, that’s designed to make a splash in the Internet of Things (IoT).

There’s a new wireless standard? Another one, I mean?

Yep, there sure is. It’s called 802.11ah, as in “ah, a new Wi-Fi standard!”

Oh, um, ha-ha. I guess that had the same general shape as a joke.

You’re too kind.

So what’s the big deal with 802.11ah?

In very broad strokes, it’s low-powered Wi-Fi at a lower frequency – 900MHz, where most Wi-Fi lives at 2.4GHz or 5GHz. The Wi-Fi Alliance, which is the standards group that controls these things, also calls it “HaLow.”

Exciting. What’s the point of that?

The point is that lower frequency radio waves propagate better over distance and are a lot better at traveling through obstacles like doors and walls. Devices using the HaLow standard, therefore, will have considerably longer operating ranges than those working on the higher a/b/g/n/ac frequencies.

That’s good, anyway – is that becoming an issue?

It is, if you’re planning to hop aboard the IoT bandwagon – the real point of HaLow is to be the Wi-Fi Alliance’s entry into the confusing and contradictory world of IoT standards. Its lower power requirements and long range will help devices with limited transmission power and battery life function well.

And an IoT standard is…

It’s essentially a communication protocol designed to work as a standard language that connected devices like cars and coffee-makers and cat-food dispensers can use to exchange information. The idea is for your car stereo to start playing the song you were listening to on your smartphone when you get in, and for your cat food dispenser to warn you that Mittens hasn’t eaten the new stuff you bought from the health food store, and similar semi-useful “future-y” things.

That’s confusing enough. But the standards themselves, you say, are worse?

Oh, goodness, yes. There’s AllJoy and Thread and OIC and the IIC and more besides, all backed by various groups of big tech companies, many of which cover different types of devices and different parts of the communication process. It’s sort of like this XKCD comic.

Woof. So why is the Wi-Fi Alliance piling on?

Well, it does have a few possible upsides – Wi-Fi is one of the few big technologies that has become close to universal, even if it’s maybe not as standardized as you might think. So an IoT standard that ties into a vast existing base of devices is a potential advantage. Plus, like we said, it’s chaos out there – and chaos can mean opportunity.

Fine, so this isn’t the close-range, ultra-high-speed Wi-Fi I’ve been hoping for.

Nope, that’s 802.11ad, a 60GHz technology that isn’t even close to widespread adoption.

And when might we see widespread HaLow devices?

Not for some time, it seems clear, but that’s as much about the general slow update of IoT among businesses and consumers as it is about HaLow in particular. In any case, it’s not something most people are going to need to run right out and brush up on.

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