Wi-Fi® 2015: The top-10 list
January 26, 2015 by Craig Mathias
With 2015 now here (what, already?), it’s time for the annual Top-10 lists to hit the airwaves. And what could be more interesting or important than a look at what’s really going to matter in Wi-Fi® over the next year? Sure, many already take Wi-Fi for granted as a mature fixture in networking, and that’s actually a good thing. Wi-Fi has indeed become ubiquitous to the point that it’s achieved the networking nirvana of (however inelegant this may sound) plumbing. That’s right, Wi-Fi just works. It’s right up there with Ethernet and LTE as an essential networking and communications technology that few – very, very few, and, regardless, no one I know – could live without.
But that doesn’t mean that the folks at the Patent Office can relax – the rate of innovation in Wi-Fi remains at a significant pace, and new developments continue to enable advanced applications that will yield far-reaching benefits. So what follows is a look at what I think will be the most important advances in Wi-Fi technologies, and more, for 2015 – and, as we’ll allude below, about which there will be plenty of talk about in the outyears. I’ve listed my Top-10 in no particular order, with no prioritization or relative importance implied. With Wi-Fi, again, now so important across so many applications, it would be tough to say which of the following is truly Number One.
802.11ac takes off
But let’s start with what’s usually top-of-mind today, 802.11ac. As we forecast about two years ago, 2015 will be the year in which sales of 802.11ac-based products exceed those of 802.11n. This is not to say that 802.11n is obsolete; indeed, sales of .11n-based products will continue and we still don’t see any large-scale de-commissioning of 802.11n installations occurring before 2018 (and even then, 802.11ac will still provide backwards compatibility for the many still-in-service 802.11n clients). But the rate-vs.-range performance of .11ac, thanks primarily to beamforming and clever vendor implementations, and the improvement in overall capacity inherent in 802.11ac, thanks to increased channel bandwidths, will bring even the most skeptical IT managers and residential buyers into the 802.11ac fold in 2015. Sure, vendors are leading with the amazing throughput numbers enabled by 802.11ac, with four-stream products offering in excess of 3 Gbps aggregate throughput now available, but most deployments will really be all about improved range, reliability, management, and the capacity to support multiple, simultaneous, and demanding users, devices, and applications ranging from streaming video to the Internet of Things.
WiGig® on the move
802.11ad, or WiGig, will also gain a good deal of steam in 2015. Many have not yet even heard of 802.11ad, perhaps because it’s getting lost in the alphabet soup (see the final item, below) of WLAN standards, and the fact is that few products are available today. But 802.11ad is no afterthought, and it won’t be to .11ac like 802.11a was to 802.11g, a powerful but underutilized also-ran. 802.11ad is best thought of as a complement to 802.11ac, designed for very (very!) high throughput over more limited range. 802.11ad operates in the 60 GHz bands, where’s there’s a vast amount of available spectrum, and can reach close to 7 Gbps. OK, you say; so can 802.11ac - but that’s possible only in an 8x8 MIMO configuration, and such won’t be common in 2015, if ever. But, again you say, the 5 GHz. of 802.11ac propagates more efficiently, and 60 GHz really doesn’t go through walls. True – but in open offices, for in-room full-speed HD video links, high-performance virtual reality and medical applications, and many more, however – let’s just say that a lot more people will appreciate what 802.11ad can really do by the end of 2015. And with Wi-Fi Alliance® hard at work on a certification program here, many of these folks will soon have direct experience with just how amazing 802.11ad really is. Stay tuned – this is going to be big.
Passpoint™: Cellular-like connectivity comes to Wi-Fi
Passpoint is one of the most important innovations ever to come out of Wi-Fi Alliance, ranking right up with WPA™, the brilliant solution that addressed the fundamental flaws in WEP that at the time threatened to derail the momentum that was just beginning to build behind wireless LANs. Just like WPA, Passpoint is simple and elegant, and designed to make authenticating with Wi-Fi hotspots as easy and as transparent as handsets connecting to a cellular network. In other words, the same seamless authentication experience that is essential to cellular will become common in Wi-Fi based hotspots and beyond in 2015 – momentum is building, and the flexibility inherent in Passpoint leaves few opportunities for either objections or alternatives – a done deal, in other words.
Wi-Fi and the cloud – In more ways than one
Which leads us to the future of information systems and IT overall as the continuous connectivity enabled by Wi-Fi becomes commonplace. I’m of the opinion that the Cloud, not apps, wins in the long run. Why? Because modern organizational computing centers on large (make that vast) amounts of data, sufficient server processing power to deal with all that data, and real-time, anytime/anywhere communication and collaboration. The argument about needing to be productive when offline is now moot: no one can really be productive without access to the network. Wi-Fi – real mobile broadband networking – is going to be available almost everywhere (it’ll be rare to be on a flight that doesn’t offer Wi-Fi, for example), and often the first choice for this essential connectivity (see the next item). Look for HTML5-based applications, desktop virtualization, all manner of network and other operational management services, and, really, all cloud services available at the end of a Wi-Fi connection to define IT from 2015 onwards. And remember - only Wi-Fi offers the combination of throughput, capacity, and cost-effectiveness that truly makes the cloud mobile.
Wi-Fi is critical to the success of - Cellular
Going hand-in-hand with (and also augmented by) Passpoint is the emerging momentum towards cellular offload. I’ve argued for some time that Wi-Fi is fundamental – essential, really – to the future of wide-area wireless communications because cellular networks are so limited in terms of available spectrum. Sure, the trend towards small cells and LTE-Advanced will help here, but more spectrum is always king in wireless. With vast amounts of spectrum available on an unlicensed basis, and rapid reuse of this spectrum due to both efficient sharing mechanisms and limited transmit power, Wi-Fi is an ideal complement to cellular, especially indoors and in high-population-density, high-demand areas. In fact, all that abundant spectrum and 802.11ac-equipped clients will likely drive the nascent “Wi-Fi First” movement that’s just coming onto radar screens. And such exciting developments as the increasing availability of Wi-Fi in cars as both mobile hotspots and as a core element in intelligent vehicles and highways, the increasing application of voice over Wi-Fi, and even mobile unified communications (landlines? remember those?), and more – exciting just doesn’t begin to describe it!
Wi-Fi and the enterprise: Two key developments
Just as is the case in the residence, enterprises are now provisioning Wi-Fi as not just their primary or preferred networks, but rather as their only access for essentially everyone, from staff to contractors to guests. As a consequence, wired networks in organizations are now taking on a supporting role, providing connectivity, power (over Ethernet), and backhaul for the ever-increasingly dense population of APs. This means that unified wired/wireless management is gaining steam, as IT staffs always pressed to improve productivity seek to optimize Wi-Fi performance end-to-end and minimize operational expense, and the rise of big-data analytics to help spot performance and potential security and integrity issues before these can have an impact.
Wi-Fi maintains its leading role in location-based services
One of the most interesting applications (again, almost everywhere) going forward will be location-based services and, at least in some cases, Wi-Fi-based tracking in the interests of enhancing these services and a number of dimensions of security. Many in the press are ga-ga about beacons based on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), but let’s face it: these have limited range and are broadcast-only – meaning another wireless technology is required to close the loop. And that technology is – well, I think you know… And Wi-Fi can also be used for the location and tracking of unmodified clients, with excellent range, accuracy, and convenience. We’ll see the launch of new location-based services and applications across a broad range of market opportunities. Even the obvious privacy concerns can be addressed – such represent, after all, a political, and not technical, challenge.
Wi-Fi dominates in IoT applications
2015, as I recently wrote, will see the dramatically increased application of Wi-Fi in M2M/IoT/IoE. The real beauty of Wi-Fi in the Internet of Things world is that Wi-Fi already speaks IP natively, and new applications can in many cases leverage a robust, broadband infrastructure that’s already in place. Everything required is in fact here today – security, authentication, and even low-cost, low-power (I recently reviewed, for example, a Wi-Fi camera that can run for up to 90 days on a single USB charge!) implementations suitable for anything that needs to be done in the residence, or the enterprise. Wi-Fi is a very serious alternative to other M2M/IoT/IoE radio technologies, and I expect Wi-Fi will even dominate many IoT applications going forward. And let’s not forget the many potential beneifts of Wi-Fi Direct® here as well.
Service discovery: Convenience and value
Just announced by Wi-Fi Alliance, Wi-Fi Aware™ is an exciting advance in the vital service-discovery space. The idea here is for devices and users to learn about potential services, applications, information, and beyond before connecting to a given Wi-Fi network. The implications here are huge: looking for a printer? How about being notified about an item on your shopping list being not just available nearby, but also on sale? Think of service discovery as social networking that runs in the background on mobile devices. The real power of service discovery will be unlocked when application developers discover all that’s here – but it’s going to be exciting (there’s that word again!) nonetheless, and, yes, in 2015.
And the innovation continues: We’re not done yet
OK, most of these extend well beyond 2015, but you’ll see many new products based on the continuing innovation coming out of IEEE 802.11 Working Groups in 2015 and beyond. A few notable examples here include work on 802.11ax, which could reach (around 2018, I think) the magical 10 Gbps level of throughput; 802.11ah, for additional M2M/IoT opportunities in the sub-1 GHz. bands; 802.11ai, for improved connect times (this is a/k/a Fast Link Setup); and 802.11aq, or Pre-Association Discovery – which should fit nicely with the Wi-Fi Aware effort noted above (and, once again, Wi-Fi Alliance is well ahead of the formal standards process). While Wi-Fi Alliance has yet to announce plans in many of these areas, the ongoing high levels of activity and innovation in wireless LANs point to a future that will yield numerous additional benefits for us all.
So you see what I mean: Wi-Fi is indeed everywhere and has achieved the status of an essential technology - it’s right up there with electricity, the Internet, and, yes, indoor plumbing as a universal requisite for effective business, education, government, health and healthcare, entertainment - and much, much more.
Happy New Year – and an innovative 2015 – to all!
Craig J. Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. Founded in 1991, Farpoint Group works with technology developers, manufacturers, carriers and operators, enterprises, and the financial community. Craig is an internationally-recognized industry and technology analyst, consultant, conference speaker, author, columnist, and blogger. He regularly writes for Network World, CIO.com, and TechTarget. Craig holds an Sc.B. degree in Computer Science from Brown University, and is a member of the Society of Sigma Xi and the IEEE.