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From HaLow to 5G: The evolution of Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi probably isn’t top-of-mind when you think of tech trends, but new technical advancements are making it more relevant to the mobile world than ever.


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Back in 1997 the first DVDs went on sale, Sergei Brin and Larry Page registered an unknown domain name called Google.com, and Microsoft bailed out struggling Apple with a US$150-million lifeline.

See how much things in tech have changed since then? DVDs are almost a footnote in today’s Netflix world, Google is at the top of the tech heap and Apple has taken many, many bites out of Microsoft.

One tech milestone from 1997 has consistently held its own: Wi-Fi. It’s been 20 years since the first 802.11 Wi-Fi standard was introduced by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE); 802.11 allowed wireless LANs to reach a throughput of 1 to 2 Mbps.

Two decades later, Wi-Fi is still going strong, transmitting more than half of all data traffic. There are now eight billion Wi-Fi devices in use; By 2019, we could see Wi-Fi throughput surpass 10 to 20 Gbps.

Wi-Fi probably isn’t top-of-mind when you think of tech trends, but new technical advancements are making it more relevant to the mobile world than ever.

60 GHz

60 GHz is a global band of unlicensed spectrum that’s far less crowded with traffic than the 2.5 GHz and 5 GHz bands used for public Wi-Fi. There’s also much more 60 GHz spectrum available compared with other bands. Although 60 GHz promises much faster speeds, it has a smaller, weaker range, making it tough to transmit past 100 metres or through walls.

WiGig

WiGig uses the IEEE’s 802.11ad standard, allowing devices to access the 60 GHz band mentioned above. Again, while WiGig may be 10 times faster than 802.11n, it has a very short range, topping out at about 12 metres.

Despite that, the Wi-Fi Alliance (an industry consortium that sets Wi-Fi standards) predicts WiGig is “on the verge of a breakout” in 2017. It expects to see a slew of announcements this year about new smartphones, laptops and tri-band access points supporting WiGig. Makers of AR/VR hardware will start baking WiGig into their devices, the Alliance says, further driving AR/VR adoption in areas like gaming and education.

HaLow

This could be the holy grail of Wi-Fi: better coverage coupled with lower power consumption. HaLow uses bands below 1 GHz but offers a transmission range almost twice as large as most 2.4 GHz connections. Those attributes could make HaLow — set to hit the market in 2018 — ideal for use with wearables and IoT sensors.

MU-MIMO

Thank goodness for this cartoonish-sounding acronym, because Multi-user Multiple Input Multiple Output is a real mouthful. MU-MIMO allows more devices to operate simultaneously on the same Wi-Fi network without causing performance to take a nosedive. Since MU-MIMO networks send data to multiple devices at once instead of one at a time, they operate more efficiently and provide bigger throughput.

Wi-Fi Location

The Wi-Fi Alliance lists this as one of the top Wi-Fi trends for 2017. Wi-Fi Location allows for transmission range accuracy to within one metre and performs well in various indoor and outdoor settings “without the need for additional, location-specific infrastructure,” according to the Alliance.

Wi-Fi Location, which should become more widely available this year, could play a role in location-based data applications for retail spaces, entertainment venues, manufacturing facilities and the healthcare industry, the Alliance says in its trend report.

5G

We know, you’ve been hearing about 5G forever. Based on recent industry buzz, however, it should be available for realsies starting in 2019. The new 5G wireless standard will be three times faster than 4G and capable of running more complicated apps — just in time for IoT proliferation.

Although a few vendors have tested 5G modems and routers (and ZTE even showcased a 5G smartphone handset prototype at Mobile World Congress in February), 5G will likely be more expensive to implement than 4G. There’s also the question of whether all the 4G handsets and other hardware you’ve invested in will become obsolete bricks once 5G takes hold.

The most pressing challenge for Wi-Fi overall may be dwindling spectrum supply. The Wi-Fi Alliance recently warned that by 2025, between 500 MHz and 1 GHz of new spectrum will be required to accommodate wireless traffic growth. Perhaps this shortage could be eased by …

… LiFi

LiFi uses LED light instead of radio frequencies to wirelessly transmit data. Prof. Harald Haas coined the term LiFi, and a YouTube video of him demoing it during a 2011 TED Talk has racked up more than two million views. Haas says LiFi has reached speeds of more than 100 Gbps in the test lab and could be 10 times faster than WiGig in normal use settings.

Haas suggests LiFi (which has been recognized by the IEEE) could be more secure than Wi-Fi because light signals don’t penetrate walls or ceilings. He also pointed out in his TED Talk that “you have millions of street lamps deployed around the world, and every street lamp could be a free (wireless) access point.”

How’s that for a light bulb moment? While you’re waiting for LiFi to leave the lab and hit an actual LAN, you can still count on Wi-Fi.

Image: iStock

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