Toward a bigger, faster, denser Wi-Fi world

Toward a bigger, faster, denser Wi-Fi world

Some 350 Wi-Fi true believers have gathered in Tysons Corner, Va., this week to sing the wireless networking technology’s praises, peek into its future and warn of its challenges.

The Wi-Fi Now event featured sessions and exhibitors focused on consumer, enterprise and service provider technologies, though I mainly concentrated on the enterprise technology in the sweet spot for Network World’s target readers. This included the latest alphabet soup of new and emerging IEEE 802.11 standards, including 11ad, ah, ax and ay.

Wi-Fi Now Bob Brown/IDG/NetworkWorld

Wi-Fi Now exhibitors' floor

The need for better, faster, denser and farther reaching Wi-Fi is pretty obvious — people are already so reliant on Wi-Fi and the number of Wi-Fi connected devices they’re adding to their homes and offices seems endless. Qualcomm’s Gopi Sirineni may be an extreme example with 62 such wirelessly connected devices in his home (“I test all this stuff”), but he says 802.11ax in the 2.4GHz and 5 GHz bands will be addressing some very real Wi-Fi density needs by employing scheduling-based resource allocation technology as opposed to the contention-based allocation schemes used in earlier 802.11 WLAN flavors. 

Up in the 60 GHz band, 802.11ad (a.k.a. WiGig) and its follow-on, 802.11ay, will be doing their part to solve speed and connectivity crunches, too, says John Tryhub, VP of sales with Toronto’s Peraso, an early WiGig chipset player. While not everyone will need 802.11ad’s 8Gbps throughput and low latency, Wi-Fi Alliance WiGig-certified products have begun rolling out from the likes of Peraso, Dell and Qualcomm, and tri-band offerings will put 11ad to use when 2.5 and 5 GHz Wi-Fi isn’t cutting it for all devices or apps. Citing numbers from ABI Research (billions of 11ad units over the next few years), Tryhub says the projection is that “WiGig will be essentially ubiquitous to Wi-Fi, that all the devices out there that are Wi-Fi capable will over time be WiGig-capable.”

In the sub-1 GHz unlicensed bands, 802.11ah will serve its own role in furthering Wi-Fi’s reach, but here speed is much less a factor and issues such as distance (up to about a mile) and power consumption are more vital since the target market is the Internet of Things. Michael Lee, from South Korean government research institute spinoff Newracom (the first maker of 802.11ah — a.k.a. HaLow chipsets), describes HaLow as something of “a superset of other IoT technologies” that will have applications ranging from smart cities to drone video transmission to smart metering.

WI-FI GETS REALLY BIG 

Having a fresh arsenal of Wi-Fi technologies at hand is increasingly important as more ambitious Wi-Fi networks get built. We’re talking beyond the home, beyond the office and into sprawling venues as large as the New York City subway system and well, across India. 

BAI Communications’ Brian Jacks (shown in top photo) discussed how his company is working with the NYC subway system to not only deliver Wi-Fi to subway riders and employees, but to monetize it (“making money out of thin air”). The Transit Wireless network serves 277 subway stations, boasts more than 5,000 Wi-Fi access points backed by 120-plus miles of fiber, and comprises a total investment of more than $300 million dollars. And that network is really being used, with 10.5 million sessions tallied in March alone — up 13% from the month before — accounting for 550TBs of data consumed.

While the Wi-Fi service is free to subway riders, BAI can't afford to skimp on the service if it wants to get the biggest bang from such a project. "We believe this is the densest Wi-Fi installation in North America," says Jacks, noting that there are 32 APs in Grand Central Station alone. He spoke of having "a broader perspective to leverage the infrastructure that has to be built for a Wi-Fi network, and on top of that you have to look at what are all the uses for wireless communications." This means using the network not just for rider Wi-Fi connectivity, but to support everything from digital signage to payment kiosks and from countdown clocks to public safety systems, It also means soliciting advertising (commuters get hit after an hour of usage) and overall network sponsors. 

Transit Wireless uses data analytics and deep packet inspection tools to track devices and how people are using the network — the sorts of information needed to improve the network and satisfy advertisers' needs. Though of course this requires a delicate balance between privacy and monetization...

So there's big Wi-Fi, and then there's really big. Kaustubh Phanse, VP in the Office of the CTO for Mojo Networks, covered his company's ongoing project with Reliance Jio to build a billion-user Wi-Fi network in India as part of a broader network expansion by the service provider involving 4G and fiber rollouts. Some 70,000 access points have already been rolled out and more than a million will be distributed over the next 12 months if all goes as planned, he says.

Kaustubh Phanse, Mojo Networks Bob Brown/IDG/NetworkWorld

Mojo Networks' Kaustubh Phanse: The cognitive computing plane handles analytics on a very large scale

Mojo claims its cloud-managed Wi-Fi services are ideal for managing big networks when on-site controllers are no longer practical, and in this case Reliance Jio did ditch a controller-oriented solution from a company-not-to-be-named that was in the pilot stage. Cognitive computing is used to crunch data in the cloud, which has the horsepower to do so, and has the ability to make the network self-aware by providing it feedback on performance.

Phanse acknowledges that Jio took "a leap of faith" in adopting a controllerless architecture. This was actually Mojo's first project with a service provider, Phanse told me in a follow-up interview, and now there will surely be more opportunities for the company in the service provider market given that the vendor bolstered its staff and expanded its exposure to new requirements, such as Jio's desire for combo Wi-Fi and LTE base stations. And if Mojo has its way, the network could be supported by a plethora of different access points, as the company pushes for a more open architecture among AP providers via the Open Compute Project.

STILL WORK TO DO

The Wi-Fi Now event kicked off with a talk by Edgar Figueroa, head of the nearly 800-member strong Wi-Fi Alliance, and predictably, he celebrated the technology's success and "the understated role Wi-Fi plays in the broader context of the economy and connectivity" He touted the 8 billion Wi-Fi devices in use today and pointed out that in 2015, Wi-Fi crossed the threshold of carrying more than half of all internet traffic.

Edgar Figueroa, Wi-Fi Alliance Bob Brown/IDG/NetworkWorld

Wi-Fi Alliance CEO Edgar Figueroa: Working to establish "good etiquette" among those sharing the airwaves

But Figueroa didn't entirely sugarcoat things. He cited a recently released report commissioned by the Alliance called the Wi-Fi Spectrum Needs Study that explores the need for more spectrum to handle booming Wi-Fi demands despite efforts like 802.11ax to optimize the current resources. "There is tremendous need for additional unlicensed spectrum" across various parts of the world, he says. "Part of what we do when we're in D.C. is we take the opportunity to speak with folks on the Hill and folks like the FCC about these issues."

Another issue he mentioned was the need to to converse across other industries to ensure co-existence across the airwaves. Wi-Fi Now wasn't necessarily the place to have that conversation, since it was pretty much all Wi-Fi all the time, but Figueroa says that conversation has begun and the hope is good etiquette will prevail.

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