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Wireless LANs: Is 802.11ax Enough?

Here are the key 802.11 Task Groups and projects poised to take enterprises to 802.11ax and beyond.

With products based on the latest-and-greatest IEEE 802.11ax standard arriving, and with amazingly sophisticated technologies like bi-directional multi-user MIMO and OFDMA consequently poised to offer new levels of throughput, capacity, reliability and availability, it would seem that perhaps the IEEE might consider taking a well-deserved break in the near future. After all, between 802.11ax and the other gigabit+ standards, 802.11ad and .11ay, we might actually be in a position to declare that we today really do have “enough” when it comes to wireless LANs.

And given that the 10 Gbps of 802.11ax (and even the 7 Gbps of 802.11ac) will likely not be realized in products we can buy anytime soon (and perhaps ever), most end user organizations might not even notice if the innovation rate in WLANs declined significantly. After all, 802.11ax and, again, even .11ac--coupled with advances in management, assurance and analytics--are indeed getting the job done. But, as you might guess, the IEEE 802.11 folks and their commercial counterpart, the Wi-Fi Alliance, are in fact both hard at work on a variety of initiatives that, while perhaps not as exciting as 10 Gbps in every case, are still going to bring real value to organizations during the next few years.

In general, 802.11 specifies standards (protocols), and the Wi-Fi Alliance complements this work with interoperability and specifications for extended functionality. Let’s look at key projects for each.

The current active 802.11 Task Groups are as follows:

  • 802.11ax – High Efficiency (HE) Wireless LAN. To quote the enabling documents for this task group, the goals here are improving spectral efficiency and throughput (to 10 Gbps, as above), and “improving real-world performance in indoor and outdoor deployments in the presence of interfering sources, dense heterogeneous networks, and in moderate-to-heavy-user-loaded APs.” The final standard is due this year, but the work here is far enough along that products assumed to be compliant with the final standard--or, in the worst case, field-upgradeable to it--are already in the market. And, remember: The goal here is primarily enhanced system-wide capacity, not additional per-client throughput
  • 802.11ay – Next-Generation 60 GHz. This work is a follow-on to 802.11ad, using the millimeter-wave bands above 45 GHz and with a goal of 20 Gbps throughput along with improved power efficiency. The task group is expecting final approval in March 2020, and we would not be surprised to find throughput potential well in excess of 20 Gbps in the final standard.
  • 802.11az – Next Generation Positioning (NGP). The goal is improved absolute and relative location, tracking, and positioning of client devices (stations) using Fine Timing Measurement (FTM, based on round-trip timing measurement of a given transmitted signal) in place of the signal-strength techniques commonly used today. A final standard is expected in 2021.
  • 802.11ba – Wake-up Radio (WUR.. The idea here is to develop a standard for a new, novel and small radio, separate from that used for data transmission. It would be used solely to turn on the primary radio as required and with very low latency, thus improving power efficiency. No timeline is currently available, and the group is running behind its own published schedule. We’re assuming a standard sometime this year or next, however.
  • 802.11bb – Light Communication. This task group is developing a standard for visible-light networking using the 380 nm to 5,000 nm band. The goal is to achieve minimum single-link throughput of 10 Mbps with at least one mode of operation that achieves single-link throughput of at least 5 Gbps. “Li-Fi” is becoming a popular topic, and there’s no technical reason why short-range indoor communications using visible light would not be practical. No schedule is available currently.
  • 802.11bc – Enhanced Broadcast Services. The technology developed here will enable broadcasting of authenticated data to both intended (associated) and unintended (unassociated) receivers. The goal is also to enable stations (clients), not just access points, to broadcast. No task group schedule is currently available.
  • 802.11bd – Next Generation Vehicular (NGV). The IEEE 802.11p standard specifies protocols for using Wi-Fi in moving (even at speeds above 200 KM/hour) vehicular environments, to communicate with other vehicles and roadside infrastructure. Sometimes called V2X, 802.11p specifies the use of 10 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band via unassociated communications (that is, there is no need to authenticate, so overhead is low and setup time is brief). The 802.11bd standard is designed to enhance throughput and range, taking advantage of advances in 802.11 technologies since 802.11p, including use of the 60 GHz unlicensed bands. This task group is just getting started, so there is no timeline available here, either.

The Wi-Fi Alliance has been responsible for numerous innovations in security and ease of use, and it is also hard at work with more current projects than can be discussed in detail in the space available here. But a few key areas of effort include:

  • The alliance is primarily concerned with the commercialization of technologies specified by 802.11. As such, current work includes automotive, frequency agility (bandsteering), mesh networks, service discovery and optimization.
  • The alliance is also doing innovative work in IoT, management and the convergence of Wi-Fi with cellular solutions (4G and 5G). The alliance is arguably the most successful trade association ever, and this is why: It has a fundamental focus on making Wi-Fi technology practical, usable and beneficial to consumers and organizations alike.

And I’ll bet you thought that, with 802.11ax, we were getting pretty close to being able to close the patent office with respect to Wi-Fi. No such luck--and that’s very good for us. Innovation has always been at the heart of wireless communications, and it’s here to stay.

 

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