What's Next After 25 Years of Wi-Fi?

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In 1997, the first version of Wi-Fi appeared. (The same year saw about half of U.S. homes using AOL as their Internet Service Provider, Netscape with the most web browser users, and Microsoft rescuing Apple from the verge of bankruptcy.) Today, the the Wi-Fi standard known as IEEE 802.11 celebrates its 25th anniversary in a world where many people take Wi-Fi access for granted while streaming high-definition video and checking in on social media through their smartphones and laptops.

The IEEE 802.11 wireless technology standard has come a long way since it first originated from a working group meeting in September 1990. Early Wi-Fi supported data rates of just 2 megabits per second. By comparison, the latest Wi-Fi standard supports 3,500 times faster data rates, ranging up to 7 gigabits per second. IEEE Spectrum spoke with Dorothy Stanley, a vice chair of the IEEE 802.11 Working Group and senior standards architect at Aruba Networks, about what to expect from the next generation of Wi-Fi.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

IEEE Spectrum: How have the goals of the 802.11 Working Group evolved since it first met 25 years ago?

Dorothy Stanley: At a high level, the goal of the group that first met is very similar to the goal of the group we have today, which is to incorporate technology into the 802.11 standard that improves throughput and capacity and capability. And the technology we have to work with today is obviously much more advanced. Standards have gone from rates of 1 to 2 megabits per second—which at the time was very respectable—to 11 Mb/s, then 54 Mb/s, then hundreds of Mb/s and now into the gigabit range. The impact of the technology has exceeded anyone’s crystal ball predictions.

IEEE Spectrum: What do you see as the biggest impacts of Wi-Fi on society?

Dorothy Stanley: Today, 802.11 technology is global and it’s almost an expected infrastructure utility in many places. I think the generation growing up now and anyone who is 30 years or younger expects Wi-Fi to be there. Since their cell phone data plans are limited, they look for Wi-Fi and they value Wi-Fi. 

I think the 802.11 standard is a prime example of how technology has made it possible for people to access data and information in a very cost-effective way. 802.11 was the first case of making wireless technology effectively available to the masses. Any person could set up a wireless network. They didn’t have to get a license, go through an operator, or get someone else to get it done. You empower individuals and corporations to use the technology and experiment with it and improve productivity in a very cost-effective way.

IEEE Spectrum: What can we expect next-generation Wi-Fi standards to deliver?

Dorothy Stanley: The 802.11ad amendment deals with 60 gigahertz wireless operations. The technical challenges of building radios in 60 GHz are much more difficult than in the 2-4 GHz or 5 GHz ranges. Those products are going to be later to market; I expect they’ll be more prevalent in 2016, 2017 and beyond. 60 GHz will be another spectrum band that will be available for very low range applications such as those within a room; primarily docking applications and video applications. The current 60 GHz standard provides data rates of up to 7 Gb/s. The next-gen 60 GHz standard, 802.11ay, will go up to 20 Gb/s. You'll get very high throughput.

Another amendment is the 802.11ax amendment for high-efficiency wireless local area networks. That looks for efficiency in dense deployments such as stadiums, shopping malls, and subways where you have a lot of people accessing the Wi-Fi system.

There is also work going on with the next-generation 802.11az amendment, which is designed for new positioning applications designed to run on wireless networks. It’s about more efficient positioning and location finding that can augment GPS for indoor locations.

IEEE Spectrum: Have there been big challenges in the next-generation 802.11ah standard being developed for the Internet of Things (IoT)?

Dorothy Stanley: The Internet of Things is a little different from Internet access applications, because you’re not interested so much in high Internet throughput, but you’re interested in longer range and higher power efficiency. 802.11ah provides protocols and definitions for operating in the sub-one-gigahertz band (900 megahertz). In the sub-one-gigahertz spectrum, there is much less spectrum available. The spectrum that is available is different in different countries; it’s not like the 2.4 gigahertz band where you had virtually all channels available globally. Work is underway with regulators, particularly in Europe, to get additional spectrum allocated.

Here, the data rates are in the hundreds of kilobits range rather than in the hundreds of megabits range. But because you’re operating at sub-one-gigahertz, the range is longer. The transmission range is up to a kilometer. For most smart grid or Internet of Things applications, a kilometer is more than adequate. A lot of the consumer applications that have been identified as use cases would be 802.11ah-enabled appliances, such as water softeners down in the basement, the furnace, or the lighting around the house.

IEEE Spectrum: Why do you think the IEEE 802.11 Working Group process has been successful over the past 25 years? And do you expect the process to continue working well in the future?

Dorothy Stanley: There is a very open, global and collaborative consensus process in place. The benefit is that you can have any people come who have technology or information to contribute. You don’t have to be associated with a government; people come from new companies, established companies and academia to provide contributions. The success of the 802.11 standard is really due to not just the folks who developed the standard, but also due to the engineers in all the companies who built products based on the standard, and to the customers who bought those products.

It’s not just companies supporting us in going to the Wi-Fi standard, but also end consumers and the world in general accessing the Internet. My kids and the college generation expect Wi-Fi to be there. Our goal is to make sure the 802.11 standards are there in the future to provide an efficient technology that people can use and improve their lives with.

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