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Why Wi-Fi as we know it is in trouble

Today, 8/02/11, is the perfect time to contemplate the future of 802.11 networks

By Bill McFarland, VP of technology for Qualcomm Atheros, special to Network World
August 02, 2011 12:08 AM ET

Network World - This vendor-written, contributed piece has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter's approach.

Aug. 2, 2011, isn't just the day that the U.S. risks defaulting on its debt. It is also 802.11 day (8/02/11), a day when the wireless industry should ponder its future because today's Wi-Fi networks are about to be hit by a perfect storm of problems.

Until recently, users relied on Wi-Fi networks simply to access Web pages and email -- fairly non-demanding traffic that doesn't consume a ton of bandwidth. But users have gone from "connecting" to "consuming," as they download music from iTunes, stream movies from Netflix and Hulu and enter into multiplayer games on their Xboxes and PlayStations.

ANALYSIS: Wi-Fi 802.11n: Still evolving

Devices have changed, as well, offering "control" capabilities. In homes, everything from thermostats to home healthcare equipment to light bulbs (yes, light bulbs) will connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi networks. In businesses, of course, all sorts of office gear connects to the Web for diagnostics and to deliver value-added services.

Eventually, many of these "control" activities will be automatic, with devices communicating amongst themselves and adhering to preset policies. For instance, during periods of peak energy consumption, utilities will avoid brown-outs by turning off air conditioners of willing customers. Office copiers will sense that toner is low and order more. Sprinkler systems will connect to weather service information so lawns won't be watered during rain storms.

Most of these "control" activities will happen automatically with little or no human intervention. Devices will function as "users," performing an array of simple tasks - that is if the gateway networks are up to the task. [See: "Smart objects power smart enterprises"]

Pushing Wi-Fi forward

For Wi-Fi to handle all of this, standards must evolve. Here are four problems that must be overcome:

* 2.4 GHz is crowded and prone to interference issues.

* Current Wi-Fi networks are unable to keep up with rising volumes of rich media traffic.

* 2.4 GHz networks have insufficient throughput for supporting new types of media, such as high-definition video.

* Current Wi-Fi networks can't offer high data rates to multiple devices simultaneously.

A few of these problems are obvious today. Cordless phones, garage door openers, baby monitors and microwave ovens all interfere with Wi-Fi traffic in the 2.4 GHz band. Moreover, adjacent access points can interfere with one another. And if you've ever logged into an overcrowded public Wi-Fi network, those super slow connections are a sneak peak of what all networks look like as more and more wireless devices compete for bandwidth.

Other problems are just over the horizon. Most of us aren't trying to stream high-definition video - yet. Of course, five years ago, few of us were even streaming audio. Most of us also aren't connecting more than laptops, tablets and, occasionally, smartphones to Wi-Fi. As chip prices continue to drop and Wi-Fi capabilities get built into more devices, 802.11n networks will grind to a halt.

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