How Better Roaming Will Help Wi-Fi Succeed In Spite Of Itself

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Wi-Fi is great, but it’s not always as easy as it should be. Edgar Figueroa wants to fix that

As Wi-Fi’s latest version comes into play, the head of the Wi-Fi Alliance, admitted the wireless network standard has succeeded “in spite of itself”. But the Alliance has projects that it hopes will smooth out the occasional awkwardness of the wireless network.

Although Wi-Fi is in around two billion devices, and is growing at 30 percent a year, it still has a reputation for being awkward. Public Wi-Fi requires the user to log on – or face a plethora of security warnings, and the main Wi-Fi standards have evolved through a series of complex-sounding standards, from 802.11, through 802.11a, b, g, and n, to the new version, 802.11ac.

Making it easy

Wi-Fi alliance logo

The Wi-Fi Alliance must take some credit for the standard’s success. Its brand labels devices that connect with Wi-Fi, and also hotspots where phones, laptops and tablets can be used, and the coalition of vendors now has 575 members.

At one stage, the Wi-Fi stickers on home routers started to get complex, as they distinguished between devices using the a, b, g and n versions of the protocol, but that complexity has been simplified away instead of a plain “Wi-Fi” brand, Edgar Figueroa, the CEO of the Alliance tells us.

Now the industry body is set to simplify the actual usage of Wi-Fi with the long-promised Passpoint roaming standard which should allow Wi-Fi devices to automatically roam to new hotspots, as easily as phones switch from one 3G cell to another.

“Our idea is to make the connection to Wi-Fi a lot like cellular,” Figueroa told us. “The cell will recognise you automatically, and set up security for you as a consumer.”

He hopes it will boost people’s confidence in using Wi-Fi while out and about, which does involve an element of risk. A Wi-Fi Alliance survey found that people want easier Wi-Fi roaming.

The Alliance asked 2000 people in France, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom, and eighty-four percent of them said they wanted seamless discovery and authentication in hotspots. Seventy-four percent would even change service providers to get it.

The feature is even better as a way to keep hold of customers – ninety-one percent would stick with their current service provider if it could make Wi-Fi roaming easier. “If you gt Wi-Fi bundled, the headache of remembering myriad passwords will go, as it is set up invisibly and automatically,” he promised. The feature is hovering on the brink of reality still. Devices from Apple, Samsung and others already support it, and operators are “in the process of rolling it out”, said Figueroa. At this stage, that means that 30 operators are testing it, and there are no definite plans for delivery – though he maintains there will be a “complete roll out” this year.

“We are relying on operators to react to the demand for this kind of solution,” said Figueroa, and indeed, the convergence of interests of vendors and operators led to the amalgamation of the Alliance with the overlapping operators’ group, the Wireless Broadband Alliance

As well as getting happier customers, operator also get to offload data traffic from their busy cellular networks onto Wi-Fi networks, both their own, their partners, and random networks used by the customers – so that’s a big win for them.

Here comes 802.11ac

The arrival of the 802.11ac standard, by comparison is really not a big deal in many ways. It offers Gigabit speeds, but is an upgrade to Wi-Fi capacity on exixsting frequencies, and the Alliance is well-used to handling those.

“As before, consumers are leading the way,” said Figueroa. “It’s not surprising. We are going back to our roots.”

The new standard allows wider channels – up to 160MHz, and up to eight parallel “spatial streams” of data between the sender and the receiver. Although MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) has been a feature of Wi-Fi since 802.11n, this version now adds multi-user MIMO, so individual users can have their own dedicated Wi-Fi beam from an access point.

All the Wi-Fi silicon vendors are on board, as with previous versions of Wi-Fi and, since commercial demonstrations at CES this year, there have been plenty of product announcements. “The projections are that the market will turn to ac quickly,” said Figueroa.

The only caveat is that the 5GHz waveband – which once seemed so empty compared with the crowds in the 2.4GHz space, becomes constricting when systems try to set up 160MHz channels.

“The EU is in discussion about making more 5GHz spectrum available,” said Figueroa. “At the moment it is difficult to get non-overlapping 160MHz channels, and this is a problem round the world.”

Alongside these big projects, the Alliance has 20 other smaller work items – the most significant of which maybe the extension of Wi-Fi to the 60GHz spectrum, which should allow very fast in-room communications. “Probably late next year you will see 60GHz products that are certified,” he told us.

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