Wi-Fi: From Niche to Mainstream and Back Again

The progression of Wi-Fi as a set of technical standards under the IEEE 802.11 working group has been nothing short of incredible since its introduction in 1997, offering a data transmission speed of 2 Mbps. What was once seen as a niche alternative to wired Ethernet has now become the dominant method for devices to access non-cellular network connectivity, and has become a by-word for internet access itself with millions of people across the world, young and old, rich or poor.

One key part of the success of these standards was the formation of the Wi-Fi Alliance, a non-profit organisation which tests and verifies that Wi-Fi products meet the interoperability level intended by the standards and supplies the highly-recognisable Wi-Fi Alliance logo, as well as owns the term ‘Wi-Fi’ itself.

(Fun fact: this is why you see some products or services called WiFi, not Wi-Fi).

However, another big reason for the popularity of Wi-Fi today is none other than Intel. Starting with their Centrino brand of laptop computers, which combined an efficient mobile Pentium M processor with an Intel chipset and Wi-Fi network adapter, these machines were pushed as the next generation of mobile computing where the user could work or have fun anywhere, thanks to the power efficiency of the processor and the wireless network connectivity offered by Wi-Fi.

Introduced in 2003, Centrino proved to be highly beneficial to the adoption of laptops and Wi-Fi with the home and business user, moving both into the mainstream. Suddenly, it wasn’t at all unusual for a local coffee shop, office or your home to have a Wi-Fi router and one or more laptops connected to it. Fast forward to 2017, and it’s expected to be in all of these places – as well as on trains, planes, and yes, even automobiles.

Since its original incarnation, Wi-Fi has primarily focused on increasing performance for local users in the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands by supporting higher-capacity modulation schemes, wider channel bandwidths and recently adding multi-user optimisations. Whilst this is still the focus of Wi-Fi technological progress in many areas, three recent Wi-Fi standards are taking aim at slightly different goals than they have before:

1. 802.11ax.

The 802.11ax standard is intended to be the follow-on to the popular 802.11ac standard, the currently-used version for high-performance devices and networks thanks to its support for 256 QAM modulation, 80/160 MHz channel bandwidths, and multi-user MIMO.

Where this new standard differs however, is it is the first Wi-Fi standard to incorporate more advanced scheduling, client device power control and other mechanisms used to improve performance in outdoor wireless networks for many years.

The goal of the 802.11ax standard is to improve performance for users in dense networks by 4 times, and to make this possible over both indoor and outdoor environments to the fullest extent possible whilst maintaining the low implementation cost that has allowed Wi-Fi to be a part of billions of devices since its inception.

2. 802.11ad.

Taking a different approach to previous Wi-Fi standards, 802.11ad vastly increases the available bandwidth to multiple gigabits per second whilst simultaneously drastically reducing the range – by moving data transmissions to the 60 GHz frequency band.

As well as much more limited range – a fraction of that achievable with previous standards – the data transmissions used by 802.11ad won’t penetrate walls or other materials very well, or at all. These two factors combined make it very useful only for new use cases, such as wireless HDMI or data showers, where users pass within close proximity of the 802.11ad access point to receive very high-speed data transmissions, such as when exiting a classroom.

3. 802.11ah.

Using the 900 MHz band, the 802.11ah standard is intended to provide low-throughput connectivity for IoT devices, ideally to a central location in the home.

As all of these standards are straying from the typical use case we think of today with Wi-Fi – that of indoor or close outdoor local area network coverage to a reasonable number of users with a reasonable amount of throughput – the ways in which their adoption can be driven must also be different, and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to rely on the Wi-Fi brand to achieve significant consumer interest and adoption.

(Although 802.11ax is not straying to a huge extent, as it still expects to benefit users in the traditional Wi-Fi use cases, its benefits are likely to be harder to explain, demonstrate and sell than those of previous Wi-Fi standards which offered a straightforward throughput increase).

In fact, doing so may hurt the perception of these new standards as well as the Wi-Fi brand itself. Whereas up until this point Wi-Fi has meant Wi-Fi, it will soon mean something else; something that may technically be Wi-Fi, but unless properly handled and explained, won’t look or feel like Wi-Fi at all to the end user. Subverting these expectations in a negative way can be damaging, and although it looks today like nothing could impact the Wi-Fi brand as a whole, that can be a gradual process.

As Wi-Fi progresses, it is in some ways regressing; it has gone from a niche to the mainstream, and many of the new standards as discussed are now targeting niches. Many are also significantly different from traditional Wi-Fi that they require original approaches to selling them to customers and providing a seamless experience.

Today, Wi-Fi for most consumers just works – they are used to it and its capabilities. Equipment vendors and other parties must be careful how they position new variants such as 802.11ad, taking care to do so without overselling or attempting to change the position of Wi-Fi in the user’s mind to too great of an extent. History shows that such efforts are rarely successful, and are likely to leave the new specialist technology unloved and unused.

Would a Centrino-like program by the likes of Apple or Google help to push these new standards into people’s lives? Potentially – but as these technologies are targeting niches, it will be difficult to create a compelling new program that will drive their adoption.

The most likely route through which they will find their way into people’s purchasing habits is the specification sheet game – once one vendor begins to implement all of the standards in their phone, laptop or Wi-Fi router, others will begin to follow suit in the hopes that this will keep their sales buoyant against the competition – regardless of whether or not customers intend to use them.

Regardless, once they are widespread, new use cases are sure to emerge. How useful they will be to the average consumer however remains to be seen.