Faster, Higher Stronger- Preparing for a new era in Wi-Fi

 

“Citius, Altius, Fortius” (Faster, Higher, Stronger), the motto of the modern Olympic movement, has been as applicable to wireless development in recent years as it has to sporting achievement.

From the first large-scale Wi-Fi implementation at the highly successful London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, to the deployment of over two thousand 802.11n Access Points at the recent Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, the last eighteen months has seen the emergence of Wi-Fi as the primary access technology for data and multimedia. The Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 will undoubtedly herald yet another era of enterprise wireless networking, as a number of significant recent developments in wireless standards mature into mainstream technologies, and introduce further change in enterprise network environments.

The Wireless Mobility Challenge

Wi-Fi technology is now ubiquitous on laptops, tablets, and smartphones, with current projections indicating that the average user will be carrying between 3-5 Wi-Fi devices with them by the time of the next summer Olympics. In the face of increasing wireless mobility, and the consumerisation of IT, the quality of the wireless network ‘experience’ an organisation provides is now a critical component in the facilities which clients, visitors, and internal users expect, and has become a significant factor in enabling business operations, and attracting (or retaining) clients.

5 th Generation Wi-Fi

The first of the wireless technologies to have a significant impact in enterprise networking is 802.11ac, which achieved a major milestone in January, when the IEEE announce formal approval of the standard, at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

Most mainstream enterprise Wi-Fi manufacturers have already announced 5th generation Wireless LAN products during 2013. ‘Early-adopters’ are deploying solutions based on 802.11ac ‘Wave 1’ in order to benefit from the new technology, whilst waiting for ‘Wave 2’ of the standard (expected in late 2015/early 2016) to bring the full performance and functionality that 802.11ac promises.

Faster, Higher, Stronger – The benefits of 802.11ac

The new IEEE 802.11ac standard delivers significant improvements upon many of the best techniques that the Wi-Fi industry has learned from 802.11n, combining the freedom of wireless with the bandwidth of Gigabit Ethernet, and enabling organisations to create enterprise Wi-Fi infrastructures capable of meeting user expectations for ‘Anytime, Anywhere’ mobile communications.

While 802.11ac retains backwards compatibility for legacy device support, and will continue to require careful network design and installation planning, it offers capabilities that include:

Faster throughput

Maximum individual device link speeds up to 1.3Gbps, and up to 6.93Gbps throughput per Access Point (AP).

Higher capacity

Enhanced support for dense client environments e.g. communal areas or teaching spaces, by enabling each AP to serve the same number of Wi-Fi clients with greater per-client throughput, or to support more Wi-Fi clients with the same throughput.

Stronger coverage

The trend toward more antennae, and MU-MIMO (Multi User-Multi Input Multi Output), will make it easier to provide Wi-Fi coverage around physical obstructions, deliver higher speeds at longer range, and improve the reliability of Wi-Fi connections.

To ease client transition, most 802.11ac-capable APs are equipped with 2.4GHz and 5GHz radios, supporting legacy 802.11b/g/n users on the heavily-utilised 2.4GHz unlicensed spectrum, while providing 802.11ac-enabled network clients with an enhanced experience on 5GHz.

Extended Battery Life

A further benefit of the higher performance that 802.11ac brings, is an increase in battery life for Wi-Fi user devices. The faster network connectivity delivered by the new standard reduces data transmission times, enabling the device radio to be active for less time, thus consuming less power, and extending battery life significantly.

Wireless Gigabit (WiGig) – 802.11ad 60GHz Wireless

A second, parallel enterprise wireless technology to recently emerge as a commercial reality is 802.11ad 60GHz Wireless Gigabit (WiGig), which became a ratified standard in January 2013. The first WiGig-enabled commercial products are now available, with hardware manufacturers starting to release products such as the Dell Latitude 6430U Ultrabook, which is capable of working with a wireless docking station.

WiGig is perceived by many as the wireless technology most likely to drive cultural change, as the performance characteristics of the technology bring new capabilities to bear in enterprise wireless network environments, such as cable-free device attachment.

Developed by the Wireless Gigabit Alliance (now merged with the Wi-Fi Alliance), WiGig uses the unlicensed 60GHz spectrum, to deliver data transmission rates up to 7Gbps, and is capable of achieving round-trip latency times comparable with wired networks.

Due to the Extremely High Frequency (EHF) spectrum being used, WiGig transmissions don’t penetrate walls, or people, making the technology most suitable as a single-room solution. In this environment, WiGig can be used to enable multi-gigabit speed interconnection of laptops, tablets or smartphones to displays, docking stations, storage units, and other desktop ancillary devices. However, large-scale deployments, particularly in open-office environments, are likely to need careful planning.

WiGig deployment is likely to start with larger devices such as peripherals, laptops, and tablet devices, with the technology appearing in smartphones towards the end of 2015, as shipments of tri-band (2.4/5/60Ghz) chipsets increase. The number of 60GHz-enabled devices is projected to exceed 1 billion units per year by 2017, with smartphones expected to account for half of all WiGig devices by 2018.

Next Generation Hotspot (NGH)

The rise in use of mobile data has seen Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) struggling to keep pace with demand, leading to poor user experiences, and users being vocal in their complaints. While improvements in cellular technology, such as HSPA+ and LTE/4G, can provide increased bandwidth and throughput, it is inevitable that user demand will quickly absorb any increase in capacity.

A number of MNOs have adopted a tactical approach to offload data traffic from the cellular network, by partnering with wireless network operators, to improve user experience, though the transition generally requires positive action by the user.

Hotspot 2.0 (also known as NGH or Passpoint) is a Wi-Fi Alliance standard that aims to make roaming across Wireless Hotspots appear seamless to end users. Although the standard is relatively new, support is available on both the Samsung Galaxy S4 and iOS7 Apple devices. While the focus is on providing a better user experience, it puts a greater strain on the public Wi-Fi operators whilst removing traffic from the MNO networks.

The first live commercial NGH network, at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, started operating in the summer of 2013. The technology also featured in a trial at the 2014 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, involving an estimated 75,000 visitors. Further implementations of NGH will follow, particularly in city centres and other locations where, for example, physical or planning constraints may prevent the installation of additional cellular network masts.

Summary

Wireless network technology is evolving rapidly, with the emphasis within data network access already shifting away from wired infrastructures to wireless solutions, whether 3G/4G or Wi-Fi. To an increasingly mobile society, recent developments offer the potential to remove the remaining technical barriers to an all-wireless enterprise network access environment.

With enterprise IT becoming increasingly dependent on the co-ordination of multiple wireless technologies, informed, comprehensive, strategic RF planning will be key to successful enterprise wireless network deployments, and critical to the reputation and future commercial success of organisations.

It will also be essential for the strategy to encompass both wired and wireless network solutions to ensure that the wired network infrastructure, from the edge to the core, is adequate to support increasing wireless traffic demands.

While a well-architected, wired network will remain essential for some device connectivity, and critical as the backhaul component of a wireless network infrastructure, the potential capacity of these new technologies has brought closer the genuine prospect of all-wireless access networks in the foreseeable future. Like Rio, enterprise managers must be prepared for this challenge.

 
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A wireless network is an essential component of the facilities and services that students expect to be provided, and the quality of the ‘experience’ offered by universities and colleges is now a significant factor in attracting students to a place of study.
— Mike Green | Senior Consultant

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