The Latest in Wi-Fi Trends
Date: Tuesday , October 25, 2011
Wireless connectivity with Wi-Fi®, has become pervasive across many applications, from wireless devices, to medical devices, and smart grid. The advent of innovative implementations in Wi-Fi over the years, coupled with an all-IP nature of communication, has enabled it to be a default wireless interface for the emerging ‘The Internet of Things’ market. Wi-Fi was invented to be a networking technology, to play a complementary role along with the much successful Ethernet technology. Wi-Fi can be used in the home, on the campus, in offices and factories, in a hospital, or at public places, including restaurants, airports, or even on the street, to connect a variety of electronic devices. Today, the Wi-Fi interface is not only lower in power than many proprietary wireless interfaces; it is low cost and also supported by a very credible industry ecosystem. This article discusses the various target markets and applications for Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi was first introduced in 1999, with Wireless Ethernet Alliance (WECA) endorsing 802.11b specification. This specification was branded as Wi-Fi technology. WECA was renamed to Wi-Fi Alliance in 2002. The main focus for the specifications has been to enable electronic devices to connect seamlessly. Although, the idea was to replace Ethernet cabling; the initial technology was not mature enough to compete at high bit rates for wired connections. However, after a decade, the growth of Wi-Fi has been phenomenal with one billion Wi-Fi chips sold in the last 10 years. The major mass adaptors of this technology were the laptop and PC markets. This was aided by wide scale availability of wireless enabled networking routers and access points to home consumers at a sub-$50 price.
Wireless Technology Positioning
The figure depicts the positioning of Wi-Fi technology, in comparison to other prevalent wireless technologies. Notice that Wi-Fi is promising to become the leading technology in PAN (Personal Area Network) and LAN (Local Area Network), with advances in Wi-Fi Direct (Peer to Peer device connectivity) and 802.11ac (more than 800Mbps throughput support) standard launches in 2011. New Age of Wi-Fi With the launch of the Apple smartphone in 2005, it was considered significant for the exponential growth of Wi-Fi. The device pushed the focus away from the PC and laptop market, to devices in general. New product development was focused on task based computing. The advantage of machine to machine (M2M) connectivity, as a truly networked environment, was possible with Wi-Fi as the standard protocol. Wi-Fi provides the convenience of wireless connectivity, along with the flexibility to design intelligent applications on an IP network. This combination of standard and ease of development was missing in other wireless technologies, such as Bluetooth and ZigBee.
The recent launch of Wi-Fi Direct has further strengthened the case of Wi-Fi for device to device connectivity. Wi-Fi is now competing with Bluetooth, as the leading technology for PAN area networks, with industry proven security and bandwidth support. Last year, a consumer electronic-toy company, launched an RC model car, controlled by Wi-Fi from a consumer smartphone. The RC model car connected a smartphone, using an integrated Wi-Fi module embedded in the car. The market of wireless connectivity is now taking a turn, from providing internet access for browsing as the primary use case, to connecting devices to monitor, display and control a consumer’s lifestyle. For example, a customer can now use a smartphone to connect to their car and monitor the car’s performance, using Wi-Fi designed into the car infotainment system. This market for Wi-Fi in electronics devices is also being referred to, as Embedded Wi-Fi.
Future Evolution of Wi-Fi
Today, the industry is quickly adopting 802.11n standard in all Wi-Fi enabled devices. This standard, will soon stage a phase out of 802.11b and 802.11g standards. 802.11n is designed to allow for higher throughputs, with much lower average power consumption for the same performance as previous standards. The standard also has better error correction and ability to use bandwidth from the 40MHz channel. This is much larger than the 20MHz bandwidth, used by 802.11b.
It took a decade since its launch in 1999, for the first billion Wi-Fi chipsets to be sold. Meanwhile, in 2010 alone, about 770 million Wi-Fi chips were sold. It is expected, that it will take only one year, for the next billion units to be sold; with the increasing trend now for connecting all electronic devices. The penetration in new markets will be driven by:
*Ability to support higher throughputs
*Ultra low power requirements of embedded devices
*Physical layer security, comparable to wired networks
* Ease of integration into complex embedded-electronic designs
Ultra-low power functionality of the latest Wi-Fi chipsets, allows for usage of Wi-Fi in smart-grid networks and smart appliances. Smart appliances by definition, are energy efficient devices which can react to feedback, from a central smart grid. The idle-energy consumption over the lifetime of the product is the most critical cost factor, given the rising cost of energy generation. It is more important, than the actual production cost of the module. Wi-Fi energy requirements and average cost of production to support such high volumes, makes it the leader in wide scale adoption of technology, across all smart-appliances.
Companies are planning to take advantage of Wi-Fi’s core internet protocol, reliable wireless connection, and robust WPA2 security mechanisms, for aggregation of real time energy consumption and control of appliances, using demand response algorithms within the home and municipality. This would lead to a true smart home area network.
Wi-Fi Enabled Smart Home Area Network
A significant advantage of Wi-Fi technology is its ability to adapt to different use cases. The standards body has designed open standards for ultra low power and also for high-performance and high-bandwidth required applications. Notice that Wi-Fi chips are all set to replace HDMI cables, with the launch of 802.11ac standard in the next 18 months. This standard will allow consumers to view DVD’s from their television, without any wired connection between the DVD player and the television.
Wi-Fi Standards Evolution
This technology is being used for new applications, in the area of home automation and controls in industrial and automotive segments. The adoption of the WPA2 security standard, has given Wi-Fi the maturity to compete with wired infrastructure for such applications, as building automation, security, and surveillance, automotive, and industrial controls. The new standard of Wi-Fi Direct™ has opened the door for any smart-phone, PC, and laptop to connect to any other Wi-Fi powered electronic device and exchange information.
Adoption in niche markets
There are many more applications being invented, with Wi-Fi as the core connectivity solution. Real time location based services based on geographic location of access points, is fast gaining traction in hospitals, mining, and large warehouses. Hospitals are fast adopting VoWiFi services, to enable medical personnel to stay connected over voice and data, while in the facility.
Companies have launched dedicated VOIP phone products, which use the 5GHz spectrum to allow for high fidelity voice and data connectivity. The 5GHz band is the most appropriate wireless band to be used in such facilities, as the 2.4GHz band has become too busy with Bluetooth, and other devices operating in this range. The system piggybacks on an already existing hotspot technology, which needs be deployed to provide local internet access to consumers in these locations. This reduces any additional operating expenses, apart from optimizing on the initial capital expenditure.
WLAN has also become the standard, with telecom operators worldwide for public internet access to their mobile subscribers. Operators are offloading data traffic from their already congested mobile and POTS telecom networks to local IP based wireless networks, using the Hotspot connectivity solutions. These innovations are possible, because Wi-Fi remains an open standard with constant push for optimizing the cost of technology usage, along with innovations to increase performance of chipsets. With slightly over a decade now since Wi-Fi was introduced; the period of exponential growth is just about to start, with adoption of this technology in any type of consumer and industrial electronic device conceivable. We should all keep our eyes and antennas open for new and more interesting use cases that will develop in the Wi-Fi market.
The author is Product Manager, Redpine Signals