The Beacon

Wi-Fi®: A beautiful chaos – Part 1

September 08, 2014 by Kevin Fitchard, Gigaom

Kevin Fitchard, Gigaom tech reporter, gave a keynote address at the Wi-Fi Alliance® member meeting in Chicago in June. The following content is an abridged version of that speech, delivered in a two-part series.

I started writing about tech right about the time Wi-Fi Alliance formed. I started out at a now-defunct trade magazine some of you might remember called Telephony. My job there was to cover the wireless industry.

Notice I used the term wireless industry, which is a bit of a nebulous term. At the time the wireless industry was really the mobile industry.

Wi-Fi was definitely around. But at the time, I and many others looked at Wi-Fi as more of a nifty trick. With a PC card you could connect your 15-pound laptop to your broadband connection at home or work, or maybe lug it to a coffee shop.

The future, everyone thought, was in emerging 3G technologies.

3G was supposed to make the internet truly mobile, creating a broadband without wires and without boundaries. Well, as we all know that didn’t happen, at least not for several more years to come.

Oddly enough when that mobile internet revolution happened, Wi-Fi led the way. When Apple unveiled the first iPhone in 2007, the Wi-Fi radio in it made it a truly connected smartphone, not its 2G radio. Wi-Fi let you download apps and render full web pages without waiting seconds or even minutes.

Of course, later generations of the iPhone had 3G and eventually 4G connectivity. The mobile data revolution did take off, but Wi-Fi had secured its place in mobile device world. Try buying a smartphone these days without it.

And now you only have to look around to see Wi-Fi everywhere.

I’m not the most connected guy in this room or even in my office. But even in my decidedly low-tech apartment, there’s only one Cat-5 cable. It connects my cable modem to my D-Link router.

Today in my family’s home, our PCs, our tablets, our smartphones, our digital stereo and our TV and video appliances are all networked via Wi-Fi.

Oh, and before I forget to mention it, so are our dogs.

Meet Hippo. Every time he walks through our front door after a long walk, the Whistle tag on his collar – that silver dollar on his neck – connects to our home Wi-Fi network and uploads his activity details to the cloud.

I’m thinking of submitting Hippo to Wi-Fi Alliance for certification. Maybe he could be your first testbed canine.

The point is, Wi-Fi isn’t just connecting computing devices. It’s becoming a principle networking technology in the Internet of Things. These are devices that have information to share but often have no physical interface. These are often devices that are pointless to link through wireline means.

As Wi-Fi expands beyond the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands, into 900 MHz and ultra-high bands like 60 GHz, that network is only going to get much more powerful. 802.11ah will help power sensors and meters that need low-power, low-capacity links. WiGig will help cut the remaining cords in our home and enterprise networks, providing multi-gigabit connections over short range.

Wi-Fi is already making its way into cars, turning them into mobile hotspots. But eventually a form of Wi-Fi will inter-network cars on the highway.

There’s a lot of focus today on Google’s self-driving cars, which use lasers, cameras and machine intelligence to sense their surroundings so they react much faster than a human driver could. But I think the idea of the networked car is much more interesting. It doesn’t just sense the road and other vehicles, but actively communicates with them.

Networked cars can indicate to their neighbors when they’re braking, accelerating or turning. By creating a vast ad hoc mesh network, they can communicate with their peers miles down the highway, warning them of traffic jams or accidents. They can communicate their intentions and their destinations. They’ll allow cars to form platoons on the road, easing congestion and saving fuel.

The networked car will tell the highway cloud when it’s raining or the roads are covered in ice. It knows when and where there is gridlock. A network car can actually tell you when it’s bad idea to drive.

That’s an amazing thing to contemplate considering just 16 years ago Wi-Fi wasn’t even embedded in our laptops.

I mentioned earlier that using the iPhone on Wi-Fi for the first time was a revelation. But I had another more recent revelation. I was in O’Hare Airport here in Chicago on my way to Barcelona to attend Mobile World Congress.

I witnessed the LTE bars on my iPhone disappear only to be magically replaced with the familiar Wi-Fi fan.

I had never connected to the O’Hare network with my phone before and I had no special connection client working the background. Thanks to the Passpoint settings provided by Boingo, my phone just connected.

I believe my colleagues in the tech press don’t fully realize the significance of Passpoint and Hotspot 2.0, and it’s hard to blame them. When Passpoint works you don’t notice it happening. You leave one network and are instantly connected to another. That’s not the most exciting thing in the world to write about.

But Hotspot 2.0 is going to be big. It’s going to make millions of Wi-Fi access points accessible to consumers without jumping through login hoops.

It’s going to turn public Wi-Fi connections into secure Wi-Fi connections.

Passpoint, Next Generation Hotspot, and ANDSF are going to make roaming agreements between ISPs, cable operators, and carriers that much easier and make them more meaningful to those companies’ customers.

But most importantly in my mind, it’s going to break down that barrier between cellular and local area networks. These technologies are going to make Wi-Fi networks behave like mobile networks in many ways. Wi-Fi will no longer be something we have to seek out. It will be something that just happens.

That’s a pretty exciting thing to think about. Just imagine how far the mobile industry would have gotten if every time you moved into a new cell you had to configure your phone and log in to every tower.

Kevin’s keynote will be continued tomorrow where he discusses his conclusions about the future of the mobile internet, and his predictions on Wi-Fi’s greatest impact.

The statements and opinions by each Wi-Fi Alliance member and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions or views of Wi-Fi Alliance or any other member. Wi-Fi Alliance is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information provided by any member in posting to or commenting on this blog. Concerns should be directed to info@wi-fi.org.

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Kevin Fitchard

Gigaom

Kevin is a Senior Writer for Gigaom, covering mobile broadband, carriers and wireless infrastructure since 2011. He has been writing about wireless networks and technology for the past 13 years. His work has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, Business Insider and Windows IT Pro. Prior, Kevin was a Senior Editor at Telephony Magazine and Connected Planet Magazine. Kevin spent his early career at several small Texas newspapers.