Happy Birthday Wi-Fi

This year is the twentieth anniversary of the formation of the Wi-Fi Alliance and the launch of commercial Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi has become so ubiquitous in our lives that it’s hard to believe that it’s only been twenty years since all broadband connections came with wires.

In 1999 most people were still using dial-up and that’s the year when early adapters started buying DSL. I remember having incredibly long phone cords so that I could use my laptop at different places around the house. When I bought DSL, I became tied to the desk with the DSL modem because I couldn’t find equally long cords to carry DSL all over the house.

I remember the day I bought my first Linksys Wi-Fi router. At that time, I think the only device in my home that would talk to Wi-Fi was my laptop. I was able to use that laptop everywhere around the house, and I remember how liberating it felt to be able to use the laptop on the front porch. I got my first carrier-class Wi-Fi router when I upgraded to fiber on Verizon FiOS. Even then I think the only devices in my house that communicated with the Wi-Fi router were a desktop and some laptops – the world had not yet started to build Wi-Fi into numerous devices. Today my home is crammed full of Wi-Fi-capable devices and it’s hard to imagine going without the wireless technology.

There’s an article in the current Wired by Jeff Abramowitz discussing how Wi-Fi as we know it almost didn’t happen. At the time that 802.11b was introduced there was a competing technology called HomeRF that was being pushed as a home wireless solution. We easily could have ended up with HomeRF used in the home and 802.11b used in the office. That would have meant no easy transition of devices from office to home, which would likely have stymied the ubiquitous Wi-Fi we have today.

The growth of Wi-Fi required free spectrum to thrive, and for that, we can thank microwave ovens. Microwave ovens were first developed in the 1940s and emitted radiation the 2.45 GHz frequency. In the 1960s practically every home bought a microwave oven, and at that time the devices didn’t have great shielding. Since the microwave ovens polluted the spectrum on both sides of the 2.45 GHz band, the FCC decided in 1985 to add frequency bands on both sides of that spectrum, creating the ISM band that was open for anybody to use. With the radio technology available at the time nobody wanted to put any commercial usage too close to leaky microwave ovens. Since then, microwave ovens have better shielding and radios are more accurate in pinpointing narrow channels, and we can now use most of what the FCC had considered in 1985 to be junk spectrum.

I am amused every time I hear somebody in the industry say that broadband is going wireless – and by that, they mean 5G cellular. Today the average cellphone customer uses about 6 GB of cellular data per month. What the cellphone companies don’t talk about is that the average cellphone user also consumes three times that much data each month on Wi-Fi connection. The fact is that our cellphones are mostly Wi-Fi devices that can change to cellular data when we’re out of reach of our homes, schools, and offices.

Wi-Fi is about to take another big leap forward as WiFi 6 is being officially released this month. This newest version of Wi-Fi uses less energy, reduces latency, increases performance in crowded wireless environments, and allows for faster speeds. Wi-Fi has gotten a lot more sophisticated with the introduction of techniques like beamforming and the technology is light years ahead of what first came out in 1999. In those early days, a Wi-Fi modem was just good enough to handle the 1 Mbps DSL and cable modems broadband of the day.

Device manufacturers love Wi-Fi. Estimates vary, but there are predictions that there will be something like 10 billion worldwide Wi-Fi connected devices in 2020 and 22 billion by 2025 – which would be nearly three Wi-Fi devices for every person on the planet. Those are unbelievable numbers for a technology that only came into existence twenty years ago. The manufacturers must be thrilled knowing that we’ll all be buying new devices to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 over the next few years.

If Wi-Fi was a person, I’d bake them a cake or buy them a drink to honor this birthday. I’ll have to settle for thanking all of those who have contributed over the years to turn the Wi-Fi concept into the robust products that have changed all of our lives.

The Future of WiFi

There are a lot of near-term improvements planned for WiFi. The IEEE 802.11 Working Group (part of the Wi-Fi Alliance) has a number of improvements being planned. Many, but not all of the improvements, look at the future of using the newly available millimeter wave spectrum.

It’s been twenty years since the first WiFi standard was approved. I remember how great it felt about fifteen years ago when Verizon gave me a WiFi modem as part of my new FiOS service. Up until then my computing had always been tied to cables and it was so freeing to use a laptop anywhere in the house (although that first generation WiFi didn’t do a great job of penetrating the plaster walls in my old house).

Here are some of the improvements being considered:

802.11ax. The goal of this next-gen WiFi is to enable speeds up to 10 Gbps using the 5 GHz band of free WiFi spectrum. The standard also seeks to provide more bandwidth in the 2.4 GHz band. The developing new standard is looking at the use of Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA), multi-user MIMO and other technology improvements to squeeze more bandwidth out of the currently available WiFi frequency.

Interestingly, this standard only calls for an improvement of about 37% over today’s 802.11ac technology, but the various improvement in the way the spectrum is used will hopefully mean about a four times greater delivery of bandwidth.

Probably the biggest improvement with this standard is the ability to connect efficiently to a greater number of devices. At first this will make 802.11ax WiFi more useful in crowded environments like stadiums and other public places. But the real benefit is to make WiFi the go-to spectrum for use for the Internet of Things. There is a huge race going on between WiFi and cellular technologies to grab the majority of that exploding market. For now, for indoor uses WiFi has the lead and most IoT devices today are WiFi connected. But today’s WiFi networks can get bogged down when there are too many simultaneous requests for connections. We’ll have to wait to see if the changes to the standards improve WiFi enough to keep in ahead in the IoT race.

Of course, the 10 GHz speed is somewhat theoretical in it would provide all of the bandwidth to one device that was located close the transmitter – but the overall improvement in bandwidth promises to be dramatic. This new standard is expected to be finalized by 2019, but there will probably be new hardware that incorporates some of the planned upgrades by 2018.

802.11ay. 802.11ay is the successor to 802.11ad, which never got any market traction. These two standards utilize the 60 GHz spectrum and are intended to deliver big amounts of bandwidth for short distances, such as inside a room. This new standard promises to improve short-range bandwidth up to 20 Gbps, about a three times improvement over 802.11ad. The new standard might have the same market acceptance issues if most users are satisfied instead with 802.11ax. The primary improvements over 802.11ad are the addition of MIMO antennas with up to four simultaneous data streams.

802.11az. The earlier two improvements discussed above are aimed at improving bandwidth to WiFi users. The 802.11az standard instead looks at ways to improve the location and positioning of users on a WiFi network. Since many of the improvements in WiFi use MIMO (multiple input multiple output) antennas, system performance is improved significantly if the WiFi router can accurately and quickly keep track of the precise location of each user on the WiFi network. That’s a relatively simple task in a static environment of talking to fixed-location devices like a TV or appliances, but much harder to do with mobile devices like smartphones, tablets, etc. Improvements in locating technology allows a WiFi network to more quickly track and connect to a device without having to waste frequency resources to first find the device before each transmission.

The other big improvement promised by this standard is increased energy efficiency of the network. As the network becomes adroit at identifying and remembering the location of network devices, the standard allows for WiFi devices to shut down and go to sleep and drop off the network when not in use, saving energy for devices like IoT sensors. The WiFi hub and sensor devices can be ‘scheduled’ to connect at fixed times allowing for devices to save power by sleeping in between connections.

These changes are necessary to keep WiFi useful and relevant. The number of devices that are going to be connected to WiFi is expected to continue to grow at exponential rates, and today’s WiFi can bog down under heavy use, as anybody who tries to use WiFi in a business hotel understands. But a lot of the problems with today’s WiFi can be fixed with the combination of faster data throughput along with tweaks that reduce the problems caused by interference among devices trying to gain the attention of the hug modem. The various improvements planned by the IEEE Working Group are addressing all of these issues.

Cable Banking on WiFI

Wi-FiI’ve been reading a lot lately about the massive effort that cable companies are putting into expanding their WiFi networks. It’s estimated that Comcast and Cablevision together now have almost 9 million public hotspots, most of which come from dual routers in subscribers homes that provide a hotspot link along with the subscriber’s link. There are about another 1.5 million hotspots deployed by Cox, Time Warner and Bright House.

At this point nobody is quite sure how the cable companies are going to monetize this business. Several years ago some standards were developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance to create interoperability between WiFi networks and cellular networks. The idea was to allow cellular companies to offload overflow cellular traffic onto commercial WiFi networks when their cell sites get too busy.

But there are still changes needed in the industry for this to take place. First, a lot more phones need to be enabled to make calls on WiFi, a feature that is now included on the IPhone, but which few people have enabled. Probably the most important thing still lacking is the brains in the networks that will allow easy WiFi roaming so that a call or data transmission can be handed from one WiFi hotspot to another without needing a new verification and login and without restarting a given transmission. Until WiFi roams smoothly you won’t be able to continue a WiFi voice call without being cut off every time you change to a new hotspot. This might not be solved until the whole cellular network moves into the cloud using software defined networking so that the brains that are behind the handoffs of cellular calls can be applied to other types of connections.

But in high traffic areas where there is a lot of foot traffic, WiFi certainly can relieve the data traffic on cellular networks. But are the cellular companies really willing to pay for this? Already today WiFi is carrying a lot of data for cellular-enabled devices for free (to the cellular companies). Adobe published statistics recently that show that 93% of data on tablets and 43% of data on smartphones is carried by WiFi. But one would have to think that the vast majority of this is done in people’s homes and offices where they spend most of their time.

There is no doubt that having somebody else carry their data traffic is a benefit to cellular companies, but that doesn’t mean that they are going to be willing to write checks to WiFi hotspot owners for carrying cellular data. There has been no news of Comcast or the other cable companies making such deals with cellular companies, and so one would think this application is mostly speculation.

One also has to wonder about the efficacy of the current cable hotspots. The majority of Comcast hotspots are going to come from home routers that have been equipped to provide a public WiFi connection as well as the in-home connection for customers. But how useful are these connections? If you’ve ever walked around outside your house looking to connect to your own WiFi network I think you understand that reception outside of your home is sketchy. There are places where the signal is clear, areas where it is poor and areas where it doesn’t exist.

I look at my own house and wonder how valuable it is for Comcast to enable my hotspot. I get joggers and dog walkers by here on the front sidewalk, but otherwise this is not a neighborhood with much foot traffic. The only circumstances where my WiFi might have value is if workmen at my house use it, or if one of my immediate neighbors obtains a Comcast password from somebody and uses my WiFi for free. Otherwise, somebody would need to sit on my front porch or park in my driveway to get WiFi, something I would frown greatly upon.

There are a few ways that Comcast can monetize WiFi. One is to sell roaming WiFi as a service, much like you get in an airport. But to sell that service requires large areas of good coverage. And there are places like that. For example, it’s been reported that Comcast has blanketed the Jersey shore with coverage, and so selling a data connection to non-Comcast customers in these kinds of areas is a possibility.

I think the best business opportunity is for Comcast to get into the cellular business using WiFi enabled phones. They could sell cellular plans that either use only WiFi, or that use WiFi first and use cellular as the back-up. A lot of people mostly use their cellphones in homes and offices and such callers could save a lot of money if Comcast prices it right. Assuming that they could strike a deal with one of the four major spectrum holders they ought to be able to undercut the major carrier’s prices and still be profitable with such products.

But nobody knows for sure why Comcast and the other cable companies are doing this because they haven’t said. They must have something in mind, because they are spending a lot of money on public hotspots. One would certainly hope that Comcast has something in mind since they are antagonizing their cable modem customers yet again by turning them into public hotspots without their permission.