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The 802.11 series of wireless LAN standards continues to evolve, adapting to meet escalating bandwidth needs and new application demands. For enterprise network planners, this evolution is a double-edged sword, filled with both promise and challenge. What new Wi-Fi technology developments should enterprises prepare for in 2016 and beyond? Let's take a look.
802.11ac Wave 2: Gigabit Wi-Fi grows up
The first wave of enterprise wireless LAN products to implement the 802.11ac standard focused largely on the subset of capabilities required for Wi-Fi certification. Capabilities deferred to Wave 2 included capabilities that were less mature -- notably 80+80 -- and 160 MHz-wide channels, 4x4 spatial streams and multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO). While Wave 2 enhancements have the potential to quadruple maximum data rates, approaching 7 Gbps, other capabilities are of greater relevance in enterprise WLANs.
For example, 160 MHz-wide channels may not be appropriate for many enterprise WLAN applications, and enterprise WLAN planners may be reluctant to dedicate this much spectrum per channel. However, MU-MIMO could see significant adoption with in enterprise WLANs -- particularly in situations calling for high client density. With MU-MIMO, 802.11ac access points (APs) will be able to combine MIMO antennas, spatial streams and beamforming in varied ways to converse with up to four Wi-Fi clients at once. However we quadruple per-AP throughput, it could have a ripple effect on wired network uplink demand, so enterprise WLAN planners must look at the big picture when deciding if and when to use MU-MIMO. In addition, enterprises should wait for Wi-Fi certification of Wave 2 features, a process likely to start in mid-2016.
802.11ad: Faster in-room Wi-Fi technology
While 802.11ac boosts wireless LAN data rates at distances up to perhaps a few hundred feet, 802.11ad cranks up data rates over much shorter distances. 802.11ad, certified as WiGig, fills the need for very-short-range, very-high-bandwidth personal area wireless networks. 802.11ad uses the 60 GHz band to support these short, fast "wireless cord replacement" connections, often between devices located in the same room.
Some of the applications where 802.11ad may come into play include wireless monitors and speakers and storage; wireless docking between devices like laptops and tablets; wireless synchronization and backup; and ultra-high definition and 4K video streaming. WiGig offers a multi-gigabit alternative to Bluetooth, in a different spectrum, with greater potential for support within the same AP. In fact, the Wi-Fi Alliance expects that many WiGig-certified products will be Wi-Fi certified as well, and that products supporting both WiGig and Wi-Fi will include mechanisms to enable seamless handover between these two technologies. Enterprise wireless planners should plan ahead for the likely emergence of WiGig-certified peripherals for the office before the end of 2016.
802.11ah: Wi-Fi technology goes low and slow
Enterprises should also start planning for a flood of new Internet-connected "things" that will implement the 802.11ah standard, soon to be certified under the Wi-Fi Alliance HaLow program. This new Wi-Fi technology standard is effectively the opposite of 802.11ad -- using the same underlying 802.11 foundation but tweaking it to reach much greater distances, albeit at far slower speeds. 802.11ah will operate in the 900 MHz band, letting it achieve greater penetration to transmit data further -- perhaps twice the range of Wi-Fi. This approach does sacrifice speed, but reduces the power required for data transmission. As such, 802.11ah is ideal for inter-connecting battery-powered machines and sensor networks.
At this juncture, it's likely that 802.11ah will see initial adoption outside the enterprise, linking together emerging Internet-of-Everything applications like smart homes, smart cars and smart cities. However, as a growing collection of industrial and manufacturing equipment, healthcare devices and building infrastructure products adopt 802.11ah, HaLow will naturally find its way into the workplace. In addition, verticals that make extensive business use of IoT, such as healthcare, should plan ahead to take advantage of 802.11ah.
802.11af: White space Wi-Fi
IEEE 802.11af, sometimes called White Space Wi-Fi, uses the same underlying 802.11 WLAN foundation to support operation in channels between 54 MHz and 790 MHz -- the same spectrum occupied by analog broadcast TV. One challenge faced by 802.11af is determining which frequencies are available for use without interference at a given geographic location. Television channel assignments are market-specific and organized so as to reduce interference. Conceptually this leaves "spaces" in between occupied TV channels that could be used for short-range wireless applications, such as 802.11af.
Like 802.11ah, 802.11af reaches longer distances at slower data rates. As such, it is likely to be used for machine-to-machine and sensor network applications. Last year, the FCC made this part of the wireless spectrum available for unlicensed fixed and personal/portable white space devices and unlicensed wireless microphones. 802.11af remains somewhat of a work in progress; at this point, the impact on enterprises is unclear.
Doubling down on new Wi-Fi technology
Finally, enterprises interested in 802.11 advances should also keep an eye on new Wi-Fi Alliance certification programs. Notably, the Wi-Fi Location and Wi-Fi Passpoint programs have the potential to make 802.11-based products more useful to enterprises. For example, the number of Wi-Fi-certified Passpoint hotspots continues to grow, making seamless secure roaming easier for mobile workers.
The newly introduced Wi-Fi Location program will make it possible for Wi-Fi access points and clients to determine the distance between them by using the Fine Timing Measurement Protocol. Wi-Fi Location could enable growth in location-aware applications, letting devices make better use of existing Wi-Fi radios instead of requiring another technology such as GPS. These are just two of many certification programs now underway within the Wi-Fi Alliance to make new Wi-Fi technology not just ubiquitous for wireless connectivity, but more useful to applications running on wireless devices.
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