FROM EXPERIMENT TO UTILITY - THE PRESENT FUTURE OF WI-FI
Wi-Fi has become ubiquitous. Since its emergence in the 1990s, it has changed the way people and organisations utilize and share data, redefined the nature and capabilities of the devices we use everyday, and introduced new demands on network infrastructure as more companies transition their operations to the cloud (or hybrid cloud services). ‘Now the sky’s the limit,’ proclaimed a 2003 Wired article on the then-nascent Wi-Fi revolution.
Even Wired, however, could not have truly predicted the explosive rate of adoption, the diverse usage scenarios, and the sheer speed made possible by the wireless standards of today. ‘The impact of the technology has exceeded anyone’s crystal ball predictions,” says Dorothy Stanley, a vice chair of the IEEE 802.11 Working Group and senior standards architect with Aruba Networks. “Anyone who is 30 years [old] or younger expects Wi-Fi to be there,” Stanley told IEEE Spectrum in 2015.
In terms of perception at least, Wi-Fi has essentially become a utility in its own right, as vital as the electricity that powers our devices.
ESSENTIAL SERVICES, EXPECTED CONNECTION
Major public Wi-Fi deployments are increasingly commonplace around the world. The New York subway system, for instance, will offer Wi-Fi across all its stations by 2017, while a growing number of airlines are extending inflight Wi-Fi service to their customers. Providing public-facing Wi-Fi capabilities has proven to be a significant differentiator for many businesses – and local governments - seeking to serve their customers better.
Similarly, the utility of Wi-Fi within the workplace cannot be overstated. Increasing device densities and a greater emphasis on digitally-driven collaboration, however, have necessitated new ways of thinking about how bandwidth can best be utilized and directed for context-specific applications.
For instance, the last three years in particular have seen many organisations transition their network infrastructure to the latest 802.11ac, or even the Wave 2 standard. Having high-speed, reliable wireless infrastructure able to accommodate larger numbers of users and devices across multiple locations, or to service large-scale public events such as the Australian Open, has essentially become a mandatory requirement for businesses looking to provide a first-class quality of service to staff and consumers alike.
But is the delivery of the latest wireless standard enough to ensure a quality service?
CONNECTIVITY: THE CORE OF INNOVATION
According to Craig Mathias of advisory firm Farpoint Group, there are a number of key areas where these continuing developments in Wi-Fi technologies are driving innovative experiences or platforms. Amongst these are:
Enterprise – already an indispensable aspect of the modern workplace, the role of Wi-Fi continues to be expanded within enterprise as 802.11ac deployments become commonplace. A unified wired/wireless management approach has become the norm, as IT looks to optimize end-to-end performance and harness big-data analytics for security and service capabilities. Mathias points to the primacy of Wi-Fi as representing, for many, not just the primary or preferred way of access, but the only way of providing such to contractors, staff, and guests. The all-wireless workplace has become a reality, as Ethernet is increasingly relegated to a backhaul role for an ever-denser population of Access Points.
Mobile/Cellular Networks – with the limitations of spectrum in cellular networks, Wi-Fi has taken on a greater role in wide-area communications. Particularly in indoor or high-density, high population environments, the 802.11ac standard has led to an emphasis on Wi-Fi first connectivity, with carriers looking to offload an increasing data burden – around 46% of smartphone data traffic by 2017 - onto the much greater amount of spectrum available to wireless technologies.
WiGig - Utilising the 60Ghz band of the spectrum, WiGig represents an exciting breakthrough in short-range, high-speed data transfer. Also known as 802.11ad, it complements rather than replaces 802.11ac. Although there are limitations around its use as it has difficulty penetrating walls, the scope for applications within open office environments, on-premises medical applications and more is intriguing. We'll write more on this in a separate article.
IoT – the one everyone seems to be talking about. The Internet of Things will run on wireless, leveraging the existing in-place broadband infrastructure. With 802.11ah providing protocols for longer range (up to a kilometer) and higher power efficiency in the sub 1Ghz spectrum, municipal Wi-Fi, smart home technology and connected cars stand to see increased adoption.
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
Now that Wi-Fi is everywhere, where does it go from here? As might be expected from any technology, further iteration is always possible. The IEEE Working Group are persistently forging ahead with IEEE 802, defining new standards focused on faster speeds, greater throughput and reliability, specific applications, and wider utilization of the wireless spectrum. 802.11ax, for instance, will be aiming at 10Gbps wireless throughput over the next couple of years, while the .ai and .aq implementations will be driving advancements in connect times, and service discovery capabilities. The consequences for location-based capabilities will be profound.
The maturation of Wi-Fi continues unabated. Below, from the IEEE, are some forthcoming implementations of the technology.
802.11ai – Fast Link Initial Setup: Reduces connection times to networks of interest.
802.11ah – Internet of Things: Support for 900Mhz operation, offering longer range and higher power efficiency.
802.11ax – High Density Environments: High-efficiency wireless LAN in the 1-6Ghz band, improving throughput and range.
802.11az – Indoor Location Technologies: Next generation positioning capabilities.
Indeed, Wi-Fi has come a long way since the early 1990s, when CSIRO researchers discovered potential new applications emerging from their investigations into radioastronomy and complex mathematics, and the IEEE first moved to standardize the technology. While Ethernet remains an important aspect of network technology, the primacy of hardwired connections has come to an end.
Companies looking to offer fluid, seamless connectivity for their customers and staff – and reap the benefits thereafter - need to be cognizant of where the ball is moving towards rather than where it presently is. As Wi-Fi continues to mature in exciting new ways, creating a roadmap for how your organization can best anticipate and integrate these trends remains as vital as ever.