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Boingo and Mettis Aerospace Test Wi-Fi 6 for Airports and Factories

A single Wi-Fi 6 access point can deliver high-speed, low-latency service to hundreds of users at once

3 min read
Illustration of 6 people with devices and wifi symbols over their heads.
Illustration: iStockphoto

An airport operator in California and a British aerospace manufacturer are among the first organizations to put Wi-Fi 6 networks to the test. Boingo Wireless has begun testing Wi-Fi 6 access points and compatible smartphones at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California, it announced earlier this month, while Mettis Aerospace says it will begin its own trial of the new protocol at its manufacturing facility in Redditch, England, in the second half of this year. 

“We’re still defining what the success criteria will be,” says Mettis IT head Dave Green, but the firm plans to test the next-generation of Wi-Fi for a few applications: collecting sensor data from machines on the factory floor, allowing staff to use augmented reality-enabled tablets to troubleshoot problems, and transmitting live video feeds from harder-to-reach areas on the factory floor. Green says they know these applications will require low latency—one of Wi-Fi 6’s improvements over its predecessor—and the ability to handle hundreds of simultaneous connections at once—another of the standard’s selling points.

Wi-Fi 6 is the latest iteration of the now 20-year-old commercial Wi-Fi network technology. The Wi-Fi protocol is enormously popular, but like highways to popular places, it can get jammed up by too many users (see “Why Wi-Fi Stinks—and How to Fix It”IEEE Spectrum, June 2016.)

So rather than focusing on improving the maximum theoretical speed for a single device on a network, the Wi-Fi 6 protocol includes changes that should make it possible for access points to keep up the speed for a growing number of devices and deliver as much as four times the throughput per user. (If you miss the old IEEE naming convention, the one that began 802.11a, 802.11b, before somehow ending with 802.11ax, sorry, but the Wi-Fi Alliance axed it.) 

Kishore Raja, vice president for engineering strategic programs at Boingo Wireless, says Boingo is now focusing its efforts at John Wayne Airport on establishing backward-compatibility with non-Wi-Fi 6 devices. So far, only the airport’s staff can access the Wi-Fi 6 trial network with an early Wi-Fi 6-capable smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S10. Once the service is fully deployed across the airport, the first public users to access Wi-Fi 6 networks may have older devices. As new devices emerge, Boingo will invite partners to test them first on the airport’s trial network.

Boingo is interested in deploying Wi-Fi 6 in high-density environments such as airports, sports stadiums, and military bases: all places where a sudden rush of users can overwhelm a conventional network. Boingo will be testing traffic handoffs between cellular and its new Wi-Fi 6 network, Raja says, to take advantage of Wi-Fi 6’s ability to handle more devices on a given network.

Cellular networks, which are licensed and operate over longer distances, have evolved through several generations (and naming conventions) alongside Wi-Fi and the two have begun to merge in some ways.

Network operators both large and small are scrambling to keep up with industrial and consumer demand as more and more devices require a network connection. Even far-flung cows are getting their own cellular connections. And the Wi-Fi network at the home of one IEEE Spectrum columnist supports more than 60 Internet of Things devices.

Wi-Fi 6 will better align with the lower-power IoT than previous power-hungry Wi-Fi iterations because it allows peripheral devices to rest between transmissions, saving battery life. To do this, it agrees on a future check-in time for that device, so the device can go into standby mode in the meantime.

Hardware-makers are already getting on board: in addition to Samsung’s new smartphone, Intel announced on 16 April that it would offer one of the first chips in the marketplace compatible with Wi-Fi 6. Earlier this month, Intel also announced a Wi-Fi 6 network adapter to PC makers.

Wi-Fi 6 is almost ready for takeoff.

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How the FCC Settles Radio-Spectrum Turf Wars

Remember the 5G-airport controversy? Here’s how such disputes play out

11 min read
This photo shows a man in the basket of a cherry picker working on an antenna as an airliner passes overhead.

The airline and cellular-phone industries have been at loggerheads over the possibility that 5G transmissions from antennas such as this one, located at Los Angeles International Airport, could interfere with the radar altimeters used in aircraft.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
Blue

You’ve no doubt seen the scary headlines: Will 5G Cause Planes to Crash? They appeared late last year, after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration warned that new 5G services from AT&T and Verizon might interfere with the radar altimeters that airplane pilots rely on to land safely. Not true, said AT&T and Verizon, with the backing of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which had authorized 5G. The altimeters are safe, they maintained. Air travelers didn’t know what to believe.

Another recent FCC decision had also created a controversy about public safety: okaying Wi-Fi devices in a 6-gigahertz frequency band long used by point-to-point microwave systems to carry safety-critical data. The microwave operators predicted that the Wi-Fi devices would disrupt their systems; the Wi-Fi interests insisted they would not. (As an attorney, I represented a microwave-industry group in the ensuing legal dispute.)

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