Wi-Fi, like ice cream, is coming in many flavors

Wi-Fi technology continues to evolve as wireless devices proliferate and demand for video and other data explodes.

In fact, the impact Wi-Fi will have in the coming years cannot be understated.

New flavors of Wi-Fi are expected to become commonplace in the coming months and years. Standards are evolving or already in place to give one flavor of Wi-Fi the flexibility to work well for, say, every user in a large football stadium. Another flavor will work best for streaming a video in a single room in an apartment. That flavor would could not leak through a wall to a neighbor's apartment.

Wi-Fi will be used with cellular connections more than it is today for smartphones, tablets and other devices in homes and offices.

Coming technologies will provide greater Wi-Fi support for public and semi-public spaces, such as parks, public squares, shopping malls and indoor and outdoor sporting arenas.

The emergence of 802.11ax Wi-Fi

Most smartphone users today are familiar with connecting to the Web over older, slower Wi-Fi standards with technical names such as 802.11a, b, g and n.

The advent of faster 802.11ac began when the first 802.11ac router shipped in 2012. (As a rule or thumb, an entire network with an 802.11ac router functions at up to 1.3 Gpbs, about three times the 450Mbps of 802.11n routers.)

But even before a second wave of improved 802.11ac routers hits in 2015, a new 802.11ax standard is in the works at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE. That body is still defining the standard, and likely won't ratify it until early 2019.

"There's a lot of industry activity to identify what mechanisms go into 802.11ax and what modulation technologies are used," said Greg Ennis, vice president of technology at the Wi-Fi Alliance, an association of more than 600 companies that make Wi-Fi devices. "There's tremendous interest in 802.11ax and lot of people and companies are participating."

While older Wi-Fi standards focused on the data capacity of an overall Wi-Fi network connected to multiple users, 802.11ax will explicitly will focus on actual data speeds to each individual station, or device, such as a smartphone or tablet. The IEEE is looking to boost that speed by four times what's possible today.

While the IEEE hasn't even said what such a 4x speed would be, 802.11ax could certainly push an individual device connection to beyond 1 Gbps, Ennis said.

Meanwhile, Huawei is leading the 802.11ax working group at the IEEE, and has done lab tests showing speeds of 10.53 Gbps over an entire Wi-Fi network.

Huawei is using a new radio technology called MIMO-OFDM in its tests. MIMO (multiple input-multiple output) employs many antennas to send many data streams across a network. OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing) uses software to encode and decode a signal at either end of a connection.

The word 'orthogonal' refers to a kind of frequency division technology that sends out data streams at right angles to each other, and then captures and decodes the streams at the receiving end. That approach aims to find a frequency pathway that has the least interference, especially in crowded environments like airports or outdoor venues.

"The increased data rate of [802.11ax] technology means you end up not just increasing the speed for individual [users] but also aggregate capacity in the network," Ennis said in an interview.

"That's a significant improvement of performance not only for those in a sweet spot, but for all the users in a particular Wi-Fi hotspot. One interesting requirement of ax is to address issues seen in dense environments like sports stadiums where there are lots of devices and many applications being used. There will be mechanisms in 802.11ax especially geared towards really good service," he added.

Even though some reports suggest that 802.11ax will rely on MIMO-OFDM technology, Ennis isn't convinced that will be the only approach. "Various technologies are being proposed and until we go further down the road, it's difficult to say that one part is necessarily going forward."

Still, he called MIMO-OFDM a "very strong candidate" and added, "Huawei's announcement of their test results was a good advertisement for the viability of the technology."

Also, Huawei's use of the 5GHz band doesn't mean 802.11ax will use that band exclusively. "The actual project requirements also say that other bands can be considered, including 2.4 GHz," Ennis said.

Another Wi-Fi for tight spaces: 802.11ad, orWiGig

While 802.11ax Wi-Fi could be promising for large, crowded spaces with multiple users running multiple apps, there's also an emerging IEEE standard called 802.11ad that makes use of the 60GHz band.

Also known as WiGig, 802.11ad is expected to work in a short-range fashion, perhaps within a single room, but at relatively fast transmission rates of about 7Gbps. That would make WiGig ideal for use in a room in an apartment, perhaps to prevent a video stream from bleeding into another room or even another apartment or dormitory room.

The 60 GHz band uses very short radio waves, which don't travel through walls easily.

"With Wi-Fi and 802.11ac over 2.4 GHz, going through walls is a good thing because it allow more total home coverage," Ennis said. "But with 802.11ad, short range is a positive in an apartment environment where it won't interfere with the neighbors because it's not going through the wall. You get really high speed in-room capability."

The IEEE ratified 802.11ad in late 2012, and there are few products on the market today that can do things like wirelessly stream an HD video from a Blu-ray player to a video projector (such as the DVDO Air).

The Wi-Fi Alliance is still developing its own WiGig certification process to show which WiGig products will interoperate. The alliance expects to launch a list of interoperable products in 2015, Ennis said.

In early July, Qualcomm announced it had acquired Wilocity, which makes chips based on WiGig. Qualcomm said it will use the WiGig technology in its 64-bit Snapdragon 810 mobile chip. Smartphones and tablets with WiGig are expected ship in the latter half of 2015.

A smartphone that incorporates a WiGig chip could wirelessly transmit a 4K video from a smartphone to a big screen.

Wi-Fi for every situation

With WiGig and 802.11ax on the horizon, Ennis said he's expecting the arrival of routers and devices equipped to work at fast speeds in a variety of settings, from living rooms to outdoor spaces.

Neither standard is widely available today, but 802.11ac products have been on the market for a year. "They are definitely hitting performance points in excess of what consumers need right now, and will continue to satisfy them for the next few years," Ennis said.

"There's no need to wait for products on the coming standards," Ennis advised enterprise customers and consumers alike.

As Wi-Fi expands almost everywhere, there will be implications for city governments that want to provide Wi-Fi in public spaces as well as companies and nonprofits that want to offer services on their campuses or in malls.

Even major cellular carriers like Verizon Wireless and AT&T are planning networks that will rely on greater Wi-Fi capacity, sometimes joining Wi-Fi hot zones to their fastest LTE networks.

In the Kansas City area, Google's installation of Google Fiber to homes has helped prompt a proliferation of wireless Wi-Fi technologies as well. Cable provider Time Warner said in May that it had provisioned 11,000 Wi-Fi hotspots for its Kansas City customers on both sides of the Missouri-Kansas border.

Cisco, meanwhile, said it is working with Kansas City, Mo., officials to launch a new network for smart city services that will rely heavily on the use of mobile apps.

The Wi-Fi Alliance also has a Passpoint certification program that focuses on improving a user's connection and ease of access and discovery of Wi-Fi hotspots.

"Wi-Fi is being incorporated within all kinds of devices and it's now a must for [organizations] to be supporting it," Ennis said.

This story, "Wi-Fi, like ice cream, is coming in many flavors" was originally published by Computerworld.


Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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