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Catch Up With The Wi-Fi Alliance: Passpoint, Voice-Enterprise And More

There likely isn't an organization more plugged into the various verticals of the wireless industry than the Wi-Fi Alliance. The group, which certifies various types and degrees of interoperability between wireless components, has had as much to do with the growth of wireless connectivity as any WLAN vendor or chipmaker. I recently had my periodic catch-up call with the alliance, and we covered a lot of interesting ground.

Greg Ennis, technical director for the Wi-Fi Alliance, was a good sport as I peppered him with a range of questions. Some he deftly avoided (like why Apple devices are sometimes sucky wireless clients on business networks), while many others he was able to provide insight on as only the alliance can. What's great about talking to Ennis and his team is that they are certainly industry "insiders," but they're in the unique position of having manufacturers wanting to get their blessing and coveted logos. Products that don't measure up to a rigorous battery of testing don't make the grade and likely won't go far in the market.

We talked about what Ennis sees as exciting now across the various wireless spaces. Wi-Fi offload is huge, as carriers seek relief from ever-more data users on mobile networks, and much of this is driven by the ongoing client thirst for video content delivered wirelessly. This demand is paralleled in the wireless-enabled consumer electronics space, where TVs and a range of gadgets get connected via the WLAN. According to Ennis, consumer electronics that incorporate Wi-Fi are certainly keeping the alliance busy these days with interoperability certification testing, as well as the development of certifications aimed at specific client niches.

Among the new certifications that will be interesting to follow are Passpoint and Voice-Enterprise, both of which are under development.

Voice Enterprise is somewhat self-explanatory: Devices will be scrutinized for compatibility with voice-capable wireless topologies based on a specific set of defined and measurable criteria. Passpoint, on the other hand, bears a little explaining. Formerly called Hotspot 2.0, the Passpoint initiative is projected to start product certification testing later in 2012. Once the Passpoint feature set is incorporated into client and infrastructure devices, ease of use and security will be realized in public hotspots and for offload situations, in much the same way that open networks are used now. Significant to Passpoint is that we may finally see a shift from anemic, legacy security built only on pre-shares (or less) that hopefully will entice device manufacturers to catch up with enterprise wireless security capabilities. Cross your fingers, as business WLAN admins routinely face challenges with getting all manner of devices that can't do real security on the WLAN.

Ennis also spoke a bit on the pending 802.11ac standard, with expected certification testing to roughly coincide with ratification in 2013. The alliance's take does parallel what I've gotten from chipmakers: Consumer video products will lead the 11ac market efforts; eventual enterprise adoption is a bit harder to predict as enthusiasm around migrating large networks from 11n remains to be seen and IT folk assess what the gains may actually amount to. As Ennis pointed out, however, 11ac increases overall wireless capacity in all scenarios, which is a good thing.

I did ask about one aspect of the wireless market that I find confounding: As big IT dollars go into building high-performance, dual-band WLAN environments, many PC makers continue to saturate the landscape with 2.4-GHz-only devices. Certainly design constraints on some devices make 2.4 GHz an easier build, but this premise falls down on the likes of netbooks and laptops. Ennis was sympathetic to my lament, and said he's hopeful that more consumer-facing product makers will soon realize the advantages of 5 GHz and help get the collective market moved deeper into to the more channel-rich spectrum.

Finally, Ennis wowed me with discussion on wireless development in the smart grid space. The alliance is deeply involved with a number of energy management initiatives, including contributing efforts to the Smart Energy Protocol 2 program that touches not just Wi-Fi but also ZigBee, HomePlug and frameworks used for building control. With the wireless M2M future wide open at this point, Ennis said he sees the alliance and its partners taking smart grid technology way beyond just smart energy and into areas we can't even imagine yet.