A Better WiFi?

Regardless of the kind of ISP service you buy, almost every home network today uses WiFi for the last leg of our broadband network. Many of the broadband complaints ISPs hear about are actually problems with WiFi and not with the underlying broadband network serving the home.

Luckily the engineers that support the WiFi standards don’t sit still and are always working to improve the performance of WiFi. The latest effort was kicked off a few weeks ago when the 802.11 Extremely High Throughput Study Group of the IEEE initiated an effort to look for ways to improve peak throughput for WiFi networks.

This group will be investigating two issues. First, they want to find ways to increase peak throughput on WiFi for big data applications like video streaming, augmented reality and virtual reality. The current WiFi standard doesn’t allow for a prioritization of service and the device in your home with the lowest bandwidth requirement can claim the same priority for grabbing the WiFi signal as the most data-intensive application. This is key feature baked into the WiFi standard that was intended to allow the WiFi network to communicate simultaneously with multiple users and devices.

The Study Group will also be looking latency. We are now seeing applications in the home like immersive gaming that require extremely low latency, which is difficult to achieve on a WiFi network. Immersive gaming requires fast turnaround of packets to and from the gamer. The sharing nature of WiFi means that a WiFi network will interrupt a stream to a gamer when it sees demand from another device. Such interruptions are quick, but multiple short interruptions means a big data stream stops and starts and packets get lost and have to be resent. Changing this will be a big challenge because the pauses taken to accommodate multiple applications is they key characteristic of the sharing nature of WiFi.

This Study Group effort is a perfect example of how standards change over time. They are trying to accommodate new requirements into an existing technology. We’ve never had applications in the home environment that require the combination of dedicated bandwidth and extremely low latency. In a business environment any application of this nature would typically be hard-wired into a network and not use WiFi. However, businesses now also want mobile performance for applications like augmented reality that must be supported wirelessly.

The Study Group is taking the first step, which is to define the problem to be solved. That means looking in detail at how WiFi networks operates when asked to handle big data applications in a busy environment. This deep look will let the engineers more specifically define the exact way that WiFi interferes with ideal network performance. If they have one, the Study Group might suggest specific solutions to fix the identified problems, but it’s possible they won’t have one.

The end result of the work from the Study group is a detailed description of the problem. In this case they will identify the specific aspects of the current WiFi specifications that are interfering with the desired performance. The Group will also specifically define the hoped-for results that would come with a change in the WiFi standard. This kind of document gives the whole industry a roadmap and set of specific goals to tackle, and interested labs at universities and manufacturers around the world will tackle the problem defined by the Study Group.

Most people in the industry probably view standards as a finished product, as a specific immutable description of how a technology works. However, almost the exact opposite is true and standards are instead a list of performance goals. As engineers and scientists find ways to satisfy the goals those goals the standards are amended to include the new solutions. This is done publicly so that all of the devices using the protocol are compatible.

I just had this same discussion a few days ago concerning the 5G standards. At this early stage of 5G development what’s been agreed upon is the overall goals for the new wireless protocol. As various breakthroughs are achieved to meet those goals the standards will be updated and amended. The first set of goals for 5G are a high-level wish list of hoped-for performance. Over the next decade the 5G standard will be modified numerous times as technical solutions are found to help to achieve those performance goals. It’s possible that some of the goals will never be met while others will be surpassed, but any given time the 5G ‘standard’ will be a huge set of documents that define the current agreed-upon ways that must be followed by anybody making 5G gear.

This Work Group has their work cut out for them, because the issues that are interfering with large dedicated data connections or that are introducing latency into WiFi are core components of the original WiFi specification. When the choice was made to allow WiFi to share bandwidth among all users it made it difficult, and maybe impossible to somehow treat some packets better then the rest. I’m glad to know that there are engineers who are always working ahead of the market looking to solve such problems.

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