Jump to content

WiFi's future: faster, smarter, and fewer cables


Recommended Posts


Posted Image

WiFi has easily been one of the most useful technologies of the past decade—so many of our daily tasks and the devices we use rely on it. But it’s on the verge of getting a whole lot better.

Technology upgrades we’ll see within the next year or so will make WiFi much smarter and more efficient in how it distributes signals. It’ll be so fast, and integrated into so many devices, that you may finally get to dump a lot of those cables cluttering your living room.

We talked about some of these upcoming advancements a few months back. Evolving WiFi standards were also a hot topic at last week’s Interop Las Vegas conference, where panelists and tech experts we interviewed updated us on the progress of the new standards and technologies that will improve our wireless lives.

What’s happening is the development of 802.11ac technology, which will triple speed by making better use of the 5GHz band, and “beamforming” technology to enhance signal quality. The shorter-range, but higher-throughput 60GHz frequency is also being put to good use in the 802.11ad specification, and will allow speeds of up to 7 gigabits per second across short distances (like your living room), potentially making many of the cables we use today unnecessary. 802.11ac products will theoretically push data at a rate of 1.3 gigabits per second and power wireless networks for whole homes rather than just single rooms.

802.11ac is on track for IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) certification in December, or perhaps later if there are unforeseen delays, according to Technical Director Greg Ennis of the WiFi Alliance industry group. The Alliance is already conducting “plugfests” to test prestandard equipment and expects to have a final certification program ready in early 2013. Certification of 60GHz technology will happen a bit later than 802.11ac, but also in 2013.

Early products are out—are they safe to buy?

You may already be seeing 802.11ac products on the market, and there are a couple of things you should know before actually buying them. For one thing, the 802.11ac standard could change between now and final approval, potentially making prestandard products incompatible with future ones. Second, taking advantage of speeds offered by routers based on the new standards requires hardware upgrades for personal equipment—laptops, smartphones, tablets, WiFi-enabled TVs—that may not be possible depending on their configuration.

So, the transition to 802.11ac and 802.11ad could be costly. Obviously, you’ll need a new router, but hopefully only one. Industry executives expect future equipment to be “tri-band,” working across the 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 60GHz frequencies, which is a good thing.

Those smartphones, laptops, and PCs you own right now will connect to both old and new routers thanks to backwards compatibility, but they won’t get the speed advantages of the new specifications. In a laptop or desktop, depending on the configuration, you might be able upgrade the wireless mini card to gain compatibility with 802.11ac and 802.11ad. But laptops such as the MacBook Air or Ultrabooks are mostly made up of components that aren’t replaceable by a user, and thus will have to stick to 802.11n speeds.

As for whether it’s safe to buy 802.11ac equipment prior to the standard being finalized, the answer seems to be “probably.” As we’ve noted before, the likes of Broadcom, Netgear, and Buffalo have already unveiled 802.11ac products, even though the specification hasn’t been approved by the IEEE yet.

Spec work is pretty far along, and major changes aren’t expected before passage. At this point, the work is mainly in making sure that the specification is crystal clear so that it can’t be interpreted differently by different vendors, Ennis told Ars.

There were interoperability problems with precertification equipment back around 2006 prior to the adoption of 802.11n, but the WiFi Alliance and vendors say the industry has learned its lesson. With 11ac, vendors waited until the spec hit a certain level of maturity to start building products, caution they did not exercise in years past.

While the WiFi Alliance isn’t predicting major problems if you buy 802.11ac equipment now, it's not explicitly recommending it either, given that the spec could change. Others feel more confidence, or less caution, if you prefer. Matthew Gast, director of product management for Aerohive Networks, said in an Interop WiFi panel that at this point it would be difficult to change the standard in any major way. A 75 percent vote is needed, and any changes would fall hard on chip makers, who make up 35 to 40 percent of the voting pool, Gast said.

The standard is already in good shape, and the existence of equipment based on its draft form serves as a straight jacket preventing big changes. “No one wants to change it in a way that’s not interoperable,” he said.

When asked by an Interop attendee if it’s safe to buy 802.11ac equipment today, he said “yes, it’s a safe investment.”

The question will be moot once the specification passes and the WiFi Alliance starts certifying devices, of course. If you want to take the risk and buy an 802.11ac router today, one option comes from Buffalo, which began selling routers and media bridges based on the new standards this week. Netgear also got its new routers to market this week, one day after Buffalo.

Goodbye cables, hello faster media streaming

For home users, the speedier WiFi will be most useful for streaming from one device to another, as the WiFi speeds will far outstrip typical Internet download speeds.

The routers from Buffalo and Netgear are limited in that they support transmission at 2.4GHz and 5GHz, but not 60GHz. But as time goes on, “tri-band” routers supporting all three wavelengths will become increasingly common.

Posted Image

Mark Grodzinksy, VP of marketing for Wilocity, a vendor that plans 60GHz products, says “Everything you can do today in WiFi you will be able to do in WiFi at 60GHz,” just much faster and over limited distances. Five to seven gigabits per second from 60GHz technology outstrips or matches wired speeds from USB 3.0, he noted.

If you can get the same speeds wirelessly that you get today with wires, the need for cables and devices with a lot of ports will dramatically decrease, he said. Why even bother with wires for external storage? he asked.

“With 5 to 7 Gigabits per second speed, you can really start to replace everything,” Grodzinsky said.

Granted, Grodzinsky has a vested interest here as marketing guru for Wilocity. But it’s easy to be tempted by the possibilities. Sure, we can already stream movies from a PC to a TV. But, as Ennis notes, at five to seven gigabits per second you’ll be streaming uncompressed, higher-quality movies, or transferring whole movies from one device to another much faster than you can today. Got some high-def, 3D games on your PC? Stream them to your TV to play on a bigger screen without cables.

As for 802.11ac, the use of the 5GHz band and beamforming technology will greatly improve WiFi performance in homes and in congested public WiFi zones, Ennnis said.

Beamforming creates a more focused signal that extends range and lessens the possibility of signals interfering with each other, Ennis explained. The industry was never able to settle upon a single method of beamforming for 802.11n, but 802.11ac will implement the technology in an interoperable, multivendor fashion, said Rolf De Vegt, senior director of technology at Qualcomm.

The benefits of beamforming multiply as you add antennas to access points, Ennis said. While 802.11ac provides for 1.3 Gigabit per second throughput, Ennis says “the overall capacity of an 802.11ac installation with a single multiantenna access point will be several times that, because you can reuse that bandwidth, basically by directing the signals individually to different stations that are arranged spatially. Not only is ac going to be giving you a data rate increase for your specific data transfers, but it will be increasing capacity of the airwaves because of this beamforming capability.”

WiFi is constantly evolving, and it’s not just 802.11ac and 802.11ad driving the changes. As discussed at Interop, the WiFi Alliance is also pushing out the Passpoint program, which seeks to make public WiFi hotspots as easy to connect to as cellular networks; a Voice-Enterprise certification to improve the quality of voice calls over WiFi; a certification program enabling extended power save features based on 802.11v; and a new smart grid standard using WiFi to connect household appliances, consumer electronics, and automobiles, helping to manage their energy use. Testing and certification for the power-saving and smart grid programs are expected in mid-to-late 2013.

At large scales, going all-wireless still isn't easy

The Interop conference was an appropriate setting to discuss WiFi standards, and not just because it’s attended heavily by IT executives who are responsible for wireless networks in business settings. The conference itself, with some 13,000 attendees and a busy show floor with hundreds of vendors, needs a strong wireless network.

But the InteropNet, as the show’s temporary network is called, isn’t all wireless. InteropNet Lead Engineer Glenn Evans told Ars that he had dual gigabit-Ethernet connections coming into the Mandalay Bay conference center and used about 70 percent of that bandwidth. While the InteropNet provided excellent WiFi access throughout the conference area for users roaming from session to session, the real challenge is getting connectivity onto the show floor.

Evans hasn’t adopted any pre-standard 802.11ac equipment for the InteropNet, but makes heavy use of the 5GHz band to get bandwidth to the show floor, due to congestion in 2.4GHz. The InteropNet sent wireless signals from four Xirrus WiFI systems, each with 16 radios. But Evans also has wired connections going to each vendor that requests it, just in case. Current WiFi technology does have its limitations, especially in the 2.4GHz band, in which “we have essentially three channels we can use without interference,” Evans said.

“I have this dream that at some time in the future I’ll be able to do a whole show totally wireless,” Evans said. “The reality is I’m still probably two or three years away from being able to do that. It involves a lot of planning and a lot of cooperation amongst all the exhibitors out there.”

Posted Image View: Original Article

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Views 571
  • Created
  • Last Reply


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
  • Create New...