Wi-Fi is that short range wireless LAN technology that practically everyone uses. Also known by its IEEE standard designation 802.11, it has achieved ubiquitous status since virtually all laptops incorporate it and there are few, if any, enterprise LANs that do not support multiple access points. But in all its glory, Wi-Fi is nearing that state of being taken for granted. We use it to access the Internet and our e-mail through hot spots and make our home networks more flexible and easier to use. But that is a good thing. Being taken for granted is a sure sign that something has been fully integrated into our lives. Given that happy condition, I was recently wondering where Wi-Fi is heading. Here is a brief look at the past, present, and future of Wi-Fi.
Last week I met with Edgar Figueroa, executive director of the Wi-Fi Alliance. The Alliance has an office in Austin, Texas, an R&D lab in Santa Clara, California, and 12 certification testing sites around the world. I was surprised when Figueroa said that the Alliance will be ten years old next year. A decade is a long time in electronic industry time—not too many wireless technologies have achieved that status. Bluetooth was ten years old this year, another major achievement. WLAN Ethernet was invented back in the mid 1990s and had some major fits and starts. It wasn’t until 1997 that the IEEE ratified the 802.11b standard that made things work. That 11-Mbytes/s WLAN technology used DSSS in the 2.4-GHz ISM band. It was the first time that a wireless technology worked as good as the wired Ethernet version.
However, there were still problems. The many vendors building chips and implementing products found a whole slew of incompatibility problems. This ultimately led to the formation of the Wi-Fi Alliance in 1999, for the purpose of testing and certifying the interoperability of 802.11 products. This certification program was a huge success and has brought widespread adoption of Wi-Fi wireless LAN products into enterprise, home, and hot spots around the world. The W-Fi Alliance has over 300 corporate members and has certified about 4500 different WLAN products over the years.
The IEEE rapidly developed faster versions of this technology. The 802.11a version came along next and provided 54 Mbytes/s in the 5.8-GHz band. Then the 802.11g standard came along to give up to 54 Mbyte/s rates in the 2.4-GHz band. Today we have 802.11n that can blast to rates well over 100 Mbytes/s under some conditions. And the IEEE 802.11 group continues to crank out new and better standards and enhancements. The 802.11i standard, for example, greatly improves the security of wireless LAN operations, a major factor in enterprise adoption of WLAN technology.
As for where we are today, the IEEE is still fussing with the final approval of the 11n standard. It has taken years and more than the usual politics and company squabbling to reach any kind of consensus for a standard. But they are almost there. Final ratification by the IEEE is still targeted for mid-2009.
In the meantime, the Wi-Fi Alliance went ahead with a certification program targeting the Draft 2.0 version of 11n. It is rare to start certifying non-final standard products, but the standard is obviously pretty solid at this point, and manufacturers were dying to get products to market and customers were dying to buy them. While enterprise buyers typically wait for the fully ratified standard, there is evidence that they are beginning to lighten up and buy the Draft 2.0 certified products. Since the program’s launch last year there have been dozens of certified 11n products successfully brought to market. Practically everyone, consumer and enterprise customers, are now enjoying the extra speed, range, and reliability that 11n with its multiple-in-multiple-out (MIMO) technology delivers.
Bigger, Faster, Stronger
802.11n is amazingly successful and market research firm ABI Research, Inc. (www.abiresearch.com) is forecasting that 802.11n consumer access points to grow to as many as 88 million by 2013. In fact, some predict that WLANs will completely replace traditional wired Ethernet LANs, especially in future new LAN construction. It is finally that reliable and secure.
I asked Figueroa what was next for 802.11. He said that the IEEE has a study group called the Very High Throughput project where the potential for a 1 Gbyte/s Wi-Fi version is being developed. It will be years in the making, but it will surely incorporate MIMO, beamforming, and other exotic technologies not to mention a higher operating frequency (most likely 60 GHz.). There’s something to look forward to.
Figueroa also reminded me of the several consumer improvements announced recently. These include Wi-Fi Protected Set Up that eases the process of configuring and protecting home Wi-Fi networks. Then there is Wi-Fi Multimedia that helps ensure quality of service in video and gaming applications. In addition, the 802.11s standard is nearing ratification. This is a mesh network standard. Mesh networks using Wi-Fi have been around a few years but all of them are proprietary and interoperable from one to another. Such mesh networks have been used to build hundreds of municipal WLANs for public service, public safety, and the public in general. Some have been successful, others not so much. The availability of a formal IEEE standard could help expand the use of Wi-Fi meshes in the future.
A new program with the Wi-Fi Alliance is the certification of voice over Wi-Fi products. More and more, WLANs are carrying digital voice traffic as more organizations adopt VoIP phones. Furthermore, converged cellular/Wi-Fi handsets are becoming more available, allowing subscribers to switch seamlessly from the cell site to the Wi-Fi access point, or vice-versa, as they more about. The new certification program will ensure the interoperability and the delivery of good voice quality of voice calls over any Wi-Fi link. Both personal and enterprise voice certification programs are in the works, and there are already a dozen or more personal products certified to date.
While the future of Wi-Fi looks good, competing technologies could dampen its growth. For example, mobile WiMAX products are beginning to show up around the world. This metro, wireless technology has a longer range with competitive speeds. WiMAX could end up inside most laptops, just like Wi-Fi is now. As wireless broadband services using WiMAX materialize and grow Wi-Fi usage could decrease. No doubt initially at least laptops could contain both wireless standards. And what about the competition from improved data services from the cellular carriers? Already the use of 3G cellular data cards is growing—and 4G is just around the corner.
Will Wi-Fi just fade away? Not likely is my guess. It is a well entrenched wireless technology with a solid road map to the future and a seemingly endless flow of improvements and innovations. Wi-Fi is still a good bet.
Check out the status of the various 802.11 standards projects at:
Check out more Wi-Fi details at the Alliance’s Web site at: www.wi-fi.com.