WIRELESS INFRASTRUCTURE

  • 01/18/2016
    7:00 AM
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WiFi HaLow Is Promising But Complicated

The new 802.11ah wireless standard is compelling for IoT, but don't get too excited just yet.

Changes to the 802.11 WiFi standard don’t come along very often. When they do, they are usually accompanied by great hype and lofty promises of incredible speeds that may or may not eventually be realized. The recently announced 802.11ah standard is different, and is newsworthy for several other reasons.

A quick refresh on mainstream WiFi frequencies is in order before we talk about 802.11ah. We’re living in a wireless world that primarily runs on 802.11n and .11ac. The .11n standard works in both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, while .11ac by definition only works in 5 GHz. The overwhelming majority of .11ac access points also have a 2.4 GHz .11n radio onboard, and both bands are wildly popular right now for everything from smartphones to laptops to the assorted gadgetry that increasingly comes equipped with wireless networking capabilities. And that gadgetry brings us to 802.11h.

Named HaLow by the Wi-Fi Alliance, 802.11ah works in 900 Mhz. This frequency might sound odd to the uninitiated, but the original 802.11 standard actually allowed for 900 MHz and Infrared, though neither really went very far because they are both quite slow by comparison to what can be done in the higher bands for WLAN applications. So, HaLow is slower, and works in a somewhat exotic frequency. Both of these characteristics are what make 802.11ah potentially a very good thing.

At the same output power, lower frequencies will travel farther than higher frequencies. This is just a page out of Physics 101, and it plays into the promise of 11ah. Some of us who implement wireless bridging in tough environments know that at times, 900 MHz can also penetrate objects that block 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. There are wireless Internet providers who use 900 MHz extensively from towers to client premises equipment because the frequency will go through trees, buildings, and other objects. You won’t get blazing fast throughput, but you will benefit from usable, reliable signal.

This makes for a compelling story for 802.11ah and its use in the Internet of Things realm, where connected objects may be in nooks and crannies that conventional WiFi just can’t reach. But as with all new things in wireless, there is always more to the story.

(Image: jefferrb/Pixabay)

The IoT still is just emerging, and is largely up for grabs when it comes to any one radio technology dominating connectivity for bazillions of IoT devices. Even if 900 MHz does well, it will still be just part of a mix that also features Bluetooth, ZigBee, “regular” Wi-Fi, 4G and 5G, and a number of other standards-based and proprietary technologies. Moreover, HaLow is still subject to interference, and 900 MHz has its share of other devices already using the frequency. Cordless phones, hobby and licensed radio systems, lighting controls, and AV equipment are just some of the other devices that call 900 MHz home.

We also have to consider that many of the device makers that will produce 900 MHz wireless adaptors, or combination adapters that do 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz and 900 MHz, are likely to be the same ones that have yet to drag their wireless culture into this century. The WiFi client space is awash with devices that have substandard security capabilities, wonky radio characteristics, and poorly implemented network drivers.  A new frequency and standard can’t fix bad practices; if the client device culture doesn’t change before 11ah takes root, the standard has the potential to be a train wreck of incompatibility among components that all claim to support HaLow.

It will be a while before we see HaLow clients and infrastructure devices, so WLAN admins and designers have time to get up to speed on the ins and outs of 900 MHz. At the same time, we are at the mercy of the device makers getting it right, or they will complicate our lives with ill-delivered gear. Whatever happens, it’s on us to go into HaLow with eyes open and armed with hype filters.


Comments

HaLow

Thanks for this analysis Lee. HaLow does kind of seem like just yet another wireless standard to complicate things.

Re: HaLow

We for sure see, lot of things going around WiFi development, to make devices more competent with coverage, connectivity and speed. But these Wi-Fi Alliance isn't expected anytime soon, they portrait this as future picture, but nothing on ground as if now. Lab testing don't really match with real world.

Re: HaLow

Aditshar1,

Very true points mentioned by you here.

There are a lot of competing standards in this space currently.

One waits to see which of these will eventually gain traction in both the market-place and the Wider Economy.

The solution which may be the best technically may or may not be the best for all Consumers across the board.

I know its hard for us to Techies to figure out and appreciate this things but that's the Ground reality because ultimately its Business which writes the checks.

Re: HaLow

Marcia,

I had alluded to this issue in an earlier post as well.

How do you pick the Winners and Losers in this scenario?

Do you let the regulators or Mega-Corps decide?

Or do you let the markets compete in a no holds barred battle to finally decide the ultimate winner?

No easy answers here unfortunately.

And yes,This just adds to more confusion in this space.

Especially as we don't know if the Major Corporations in the IoT Space (GE,IBM,MSFT,Amazon,etc )will definitely be supporting this venture going ahead.

Re: HaLow

Amen. It would be nice if the techies of this world could understand their science rather their mesmerized addiction to all the jingoist echo chamber of analysis without understanding the true mechanics of the technology and its potential for devastating health effects. First of all if anyone knows anything about Radio Electronics you could not possibly transmit mega tons of data we are anticipating on 900 Mhz. 900 Mhz is the Modulating wave that cuts thru building walls. The data we so love to fill up our airwaves with will have to be carried on high Gigahertz waves, anticipated 30 to 100 Ghz - that is the real 5G riding on a modulating wave of 900 Mhz thru walls. Its lovely scientific trick as old as the hills. GOD Help us all. With that kind of stratopheric Ghz carrier wave you will be able pile up your data bits & bytes to the heavens.
Has anyone out there even attempted to read the Health Effects of Wireless technologies with ever more complex radiation signal channels. Well I invite to do so
http://ehtrust.org/science/
www.bioinitiativereport.org
http://www.wirelesseducationaction.org/science/