In just 15 years, WiFi has evolved from sluggish connections to an incredibly versatile connective technology. And because it plays an integral role in the lives of hundreds of millions of people, it is being improved almost constantly. But what are those big changes? And what will these new technologies bring about in upcoming years? Consumers and companies are looking for two things in particular: incredible range and extreme speed.
Within this article, we’ll give a brief explanation on IEEE protocols and standards and a history of the 802.11 family. We’ll also take a look at three up-and-coming wireless network options:
- 802.11ah HaLow: for low data rate, long-range sensors and controllers.
- 802.11af: for similar applications to 802.11ah. This network option relies on unused TV spectrums instead of 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz bands for transmission.
- 802.11ad: for multigigabit speeds (sans wires) and high-performance networking.
A Brief Overview Of IEEE Standards
The Institute of Electronics and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is a professional association that acts as an authority for electronic communication. The IEEE creates standards and protocols for communication in industries like telecommunications, information technology, and much more. Each standard that the IEEE ratifies is designated by a unique number. 802 is the prefix used for any protocol or amendment that entails area networking. For instance, standards for ethernet local area networks (LANs) are designated by 802.3, and Bluetooth personal area networks (PANs) are designated by 802.15. Wireless LANs—the subject of this article—are designated by 802.11.
See also: Types Of Wireless Technologies
In 1997, the IEEE released the base standard for wireless local area network (WLAN) communications, which they called called 802.11. In the years following, many amendments were made to this standard. Let’s walk through what each standard has brought to communications.
A History Of Past & Current 802.11 Amendments
Graphic courtesy of Microwaves & RF: http://mwrf.com/active-components/what-s-difference-between-ieee-80211af-and-80211ah
802.11a (1990): “WiFi A”—also known as the OFDM (Orthogonal, Frequency Division Multiplexing) waveform—was the first amendment, and it came two years after the standard was complete. This amendment defined 5 gigahertz band extensions, which made it more flexible (since the 2.4 GHz space was crowded with wireless home telephones, baby monitors, microwaves, and more).
802.11b (2000): As one of the first widely used protocols, “WiFi B” had an improved range and transfer rate, but it is very slow by today’s standards (maxing out at 11 mbps). 802.11b defined 2.4 GHz band extensions. This protocol is still supported (since 80% of WiFi runs off of 2.4 GHz), but the technology isn’t manufactured anymore because it’s been replaced by faster options.
802.11g (2003): “WiFi G” came onto the market three years after B, and it offered roughly five times the transfer rate (at 54 mbps). It defined 2.4 GHz band extensions at a higher data rate. The primary benefit it offered was greater speed, which was increasingly important to consumers. Today, these speeds are not fast enough to keep up with the average number of WiFi-enabled devices in a household or a strong wireless draw from a number of devices.
802.11n (2007): “WiFi N” offered another drastic improvement in transfer rate speed—300-450 mbps, depending on the number of antennas—and range. This was the first main protocol that operated on both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. These transfer rates allow large amounts of data to be transmitted more quickly than ever before.
802.11ac (2013): In 2013, “WiFi AC” was introduced. AC was the first step in what is considered “Gigabit WiFi,” meaning it offers speeds of nearly 1 gbps, which is equivalent to 800 mbps. That’s roughly 20 times more powerful than 802.11n, making this an important (and widely used) new protocol. AC runs on a 5 GHz band, which is important—because it’s less widely used, you’ll have an advantage as far as high online speeds are concerned, though the higher frequency and higher modulation rate mean the range is more limited
“Future” WiFi Technologies
802.11ah is 900 megahertz WiFi, which is ideal for low power consumption and long-range data transmission. It’s earned the nickname “the low power WiFi” for that very reason.
Who will use it: Companies who have sensor-level technology that they need to be WiFi-enabled.
- Can penetrate through walls and obstructions better than high frequency networks like 802.11ad, which we’ll discuss below.
- Great for short, bursty data that doesn’t use a good deal of power consumption and needs to travel long distances. This would be applicable in smart building applications, like smart lighting, smart HVAC, and smart security systems. It would also work for smart city applications, like parking garages and parking meters.
- There is no global standard for 900 MHz. Right now, 80% of the world uses 2.4 GHz WiFi. That is a benefit because you can connect on these global standard bands anywhere in the world. (If you’re on a Mac, try this: hold down the option key and click your WiFi symbol at the top. You’ll see a bunch of information about the WiFi network you’re connected to, including channel.)
- AH isn’t available right now. The IEEE is in the final phases of resolving the standard, and once that’s done—currently slated for March 2016—the chip manufacturers (like HUAWEI, Broadcom, and Qualcomm) will have a chance to start creating physical layer chips. You will most likely start seeing WiFi AH products appear in the next 18 months to two years. The good news, however, is that organizations are providing similar technology for low power, wide-area networks (LPWAN) now, so you don’t have to wait until 802.11ah is complete to benefit from the technology.
802.11af utilizes unused television spectrum frequencies (i.e., white spaces) to transmit information. Because of this, it’s earned the nickname “White-Fi.” Because these frequencies are between 54 MHz and 790 MHz, AF can be used for low power, wide-area range, like AH.
Who will use it:
- Organizations that need extremely long-range wireless networks.
- Lower interference can drastically improve performance.
- Because AF can use several unused TV channels at once, it can be used for very long range devices—potentially up to several miles, with high data rates.
- It’s still in proposal stages, so it hasn’t been approved or released to the mass market yet.
- “White space” channels are not available everywhere, like in big cities.
802.11ad couldn’t be further from AH. While AH is a future LPWAN option, AD is ideal for very high data rate, very short range communications.
AD WiFi—previously known as WiGig because of it’s predecessor 802.11ac—separates itself from the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands and operates on a 60 GHz band. This space is completely free and open, which helps it achieve speeds that are 50 times faster than WiFi N. And while AH uses 900 MHz, AD uses 60 GHz. To put that into perspective, 60 GHz is equivalent to 60,000 MHz.
Who will use it:
- Enterprise-level organizations that need extended bandwidth with very short-range devices.
- Very good for high data rate, short-range file transfers and communication. Back in 2007 when 802.11n was introduced, it was regarded as the fastest protocol yet. At 8 gbps, AD is 50 times faster than WiFi N. In fact, this protocol is so fast that, according to this Fast Company article, AD has the potential to “enable a whole new class of devices” like “wireless hard drives that feel as fast as locally connected ones.”
- The chips are very expensive to manufacture, which makes this a costly set up.
- AD provides a very short range. When you have a really high frequency like 60 GHz, short-range communications are ideal. This isn’t a problem if you have the router right next to you, but if you need it to penetrate walls, you’ll need additional routers.
- AD (which operates on a 60 GHz band) is not a recognized international standard. This is also a downside for AH.
802.11ah (low data rate, long-range sensors and controller WiFi), 802.11af (or “White-Fi, as it uses unused TV spectrums for long-range transmission), and 802.11ad (the non-wired multigigabit high-performance networking WiFi) are three important up-and-coming changes to WiFi as we know it.
These three amendments are clear evidence that WiFi has undergone a spectacular transformation in the past decade and a half. And with the IEEE reviewing amendments to the 802.11 protocol on a near regular basis, we’re certain that the next 15 years will hold just as many interesting changes.