The Road to the Future of WiFi

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For the past 15 years the IEEE 802.11 wireless standard has been evolving.  Its been a crazy journey. We started with 802.11a, on the 5GHz band, which provided clean signal with little interruption from other devices. However, a 5GHz radiowave is easily absorbed by dense walls, and so we then moved to 2.4GHz on 802.11b which was intended to increase the range of the technology. then to  802.11, staying on the 2.4GHz radio wave but with improved signal and higher maximum throughput. Then in 802.11n, 5GHz was back, and was actually the preferred spectrum because it resided in that less “noisy” space. While generally not able to transmit as far as 2.4GHz Wireless N, the 5GHz radio is generally considered more stable and can produce higher maximum throughput in some implementations.  

Wireless AC

We have truly come full circle to 1999, because now we have wireless AC, which takes all the lessons from wireless-n and improves upon them (doubles the performance of alot of them), and actually makes them 5GHz only, while giving the 2.4GHz band only the maximum throughput of wireless-n. Wirless AC is still in its infancy, however, and second generation parts are on their way with features like larger channel widths, more spacial streams, Mu-MIMO and other tricks we are beginning to learn. As cool and as fast as Wireless AC is, its already about to be replaced. Or is it?

The Future

We are about to

change the frequency in which Wi-Fi operates, and this time its going to be radically different than the transition from 2.4 to 5 GHz. Not only that, there are 3 different contenders for the top spot this time around. The first of these to introduce a new physical layer is 802.11ad, which is sometimes referred to as Wi-Gig, and it will operate on the staggering 60GHz spectrum with a massive 7Gbps of maximum throughput. This technology seems like a great idea for watching movies wirelessly from your laptop to you TV or for transferring home videos from your smartphone to your computer, but on the 60GHz band just how far can it transmit? Even the thinnest walls would cause a problem. Because of this, it is well accepted that WiGig, while pretty cool, will not replace your home wifi.

So what will replace 802.11ac, and perform all the versatile roles it fills?  802.11af is the next possible successor. It was only approved a few months ago, back in February of 2014, but it stands to be very interesting. Taking advantage of the death of OTA analog TV, 802.11af aims to target a few channels available in the very low frequency range between 54 and 790 MHz. This allows for a massive increase in range compared to 2.4 or 5 GHz, but the speed seems to have been sacrificed due to technical and regulatory limitations, With four spatial streams and four bonded channels, the maximum data rate is 426.7 Mbit/s for 6 and 7 MHz channels and 568.9 Mbit/s for 8 MHz channels.

But wait, there is still more! 802.11ah is being developed, and is slated for approval in 2016. Its stated goal is improve existing wifi range and to accommodate the growing demand of the internet of everything. A single wireless-ah AP can provide whole-home access, with no need to range extenders or other fancy tricks, it will just work. Because of the use of the sub 1GHz spectrum, it can also support low cost battery powered sensors operating without a power amplifier. You think Android Ware is neat and has good battery life? Wait until wireless-ah is here. However, 802.11ah doesn’t have the bandwidth needed to support link rates nearly equivalent to todays standard. The version of Wi-Fi is aimed at offering throughput of 150 Kbps swith a 1 MHz band to as much as 40 Mbps over an 8 MHz band. 



Lots of new technology is coming within the next couple years, but Wireless AC stands to remain the king of general networking, home or office, for some time to come.


Nicholas Fusco

Nick Fusco is a young IT Consultant and "geek"! As a contributing author on GBD, he covers all things tech and writes reviews for a variety of products and services.

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