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If you had to choose which short-range wireless technology is best, it would probably be Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi is ubiquitous today and it is hard to live without. It is how we connect our PCs, tablets, and smartphones to the Internet for email, searches, and website access. It is fast, reliable, and hot spots are available almost everywhere. According to the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA), Wi-Fi has been with us for 15 years as of 2014. Growth and improvement have been continuous and today we have a wireless service that has become not only addictive, but essential to life. And that growth and improvement continues. Here is a brief look at what is going on with Wi-Fi today.
The WFA just released its annual report. It is full of interesting statistics and news. The WFA certifies the interoperability of Wi-Fi products and indicates that there are now over 24,000 certified products. The total installed base of Wi-Fi products is in excess of 4.5 billion. That number is expected to grow to 9 billion by 2019, according to ABI Research. And the total number of WFA member companies is now 660.
Virtually all PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones have Wi-Fi. But there is more to come. Wi-Fi is showing up in automobiles, in various forms of hot spots, as well as health devices, and is becoming a key part of the Internet of Things (IoT) movement. Currently the most noticeable Wi-Fi activity is the rollout of the 802.11ac standard that brings gigabit data speeds to those products including it. The 11ac standard operates in the 5 GHz ISM band, so it offers more bandwidth to achieve those speeds. All new hot-spot access points and routers include it now, and 11ac is gradually finding its way into laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
Some other recent notable Wi-Fi achievements include Wi-Fi Direct and Passpoint enhancements. Wi-Fi Direct facilitates point-to-point connections between Wi-Fi nodes without going through a router. This feature standardizes the “discover, connect, and do” operations to set up peer-to-peer networks. Passpoint is a feature that automates, simplifies, and speeds up the connection of a Wi-Fi product to a hot spot thereby eliminating the search and connection operations needed previously. This eases hand-offs for mobile devices and lets cellular operators implement data off-load features. Passpoint enables seamless and secure connections that also enable Voice-over-Wi-Fi phone calling.
More and more Wi-Fi is being used for voice calls. A recent example is Google’s Project Fi that implements a cellular-like service for voice calls using Wi-Fi only. Another service called Republic Wireless does the same thing. A special phone is required. Google’s Project Fi only works with the Nexus 6 smartphone. When a Wi-Fi connection is not found, the fallback is an LTE connection to either Sprint or T-Mobile networks. We will probably be seeing more of this as well as common Wi-Fi hand-offs in cellular networks.
In addition to the WFA’s efforts, the IEEE’s 802.11 standards groups continue with developments on multiple fronts. There are too many projects to cover here, but these are some of the highlights of works in progress:
- 802.11p–This standard supports communications between vehicles and roadside terminals. It will be used in the forthcoming vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) movements.
- 802.11y–This version facilitates Wi-Fi in the 3650 to 3700MHz band in the U.S.
- 802.11af–This is Wi-Fi for the TV white spaces, the now unused TV channels in the 470 to 700 MHz range. Up to now only proprietary standards have been used. Wi-Fi could help move the white space efforts forward.
- 802.11ah–This is Wi-Fi for sub-1 GHz license-free ISM band operation. This will greatly extend the range of Wi-Fi, thanks to the favorable propagation features of these lower frequencies.
- 802.11ax–This is an update of 11ac to offer higher data speeds.
- 802.11ay–This is an update of the 11ad standard that should boost operating speeds in the 60 GHz band.
There are many others in the works. For an update, check out IEEE’s link.
Finally, hams are apparently trying to hack Wi-Fi routers for two-way communications. Hams are allowed to operate in the 2390 to 2450 MHz range, which overlaps with the 2400 to 2485 MHz Wi-Fi band. This apparently requires some trickery to get the ICs to find a channel to avoid interference to hot spots. But it is happening and some suspect that unlicensed hackers are playing around with this, too.
All of these new versions and enhancements will further expand Wi-Fi’s usefulness and adoption. What would we do without it?