Taking Wi-Fi to the Next Level
Once again, the Consumer Electronics Show highlighted augmented reality and Internet of Things devices and applications. Amazon Echo support was a common theme in IoT devices, and the headsets and apps that enable AR made a strong showing. The rise of these new applications demand network upgrades in many cases, some in the wide area ISP networks, but others in Wi-Fi networks in homes and offices.
A Little Wi-Fi History
Relentless improvement is the hallmark of Wi-Fi. The initial systems featured data rates of 1 – 2 Mbps, but we currently have systems in the field capable of 1000 times more capacity, greater than 1 Gbps. But this isn’t the only change.
As originally conceived, Wi-Fi was a system designed for workgroups: it enabled us to share printers and file servers. It also enabled corporate users to access the company network, generally a proprietary system dominated by a single data center.
The rise of the Internet in the late ‘90s changed all that and Wi-Fi became an externally-focused system. Hence, there was no need for Wi-Fi to run faster than the external network connection.
Making Wi-Fi Local Again
IoT and AR makes Wi-Fi local again. An awful lot of the traffic on a Wi-Fi network today is strictly local, such as video streams from security cameras and AR headsets and chatter between IoT devices. Therefore, the need for high-rate Wi-Fi has become decoupled once again from the connection speeds of homes and offices to the Internet.
So even though the average capacity of residential Internet connections in the US is only 70.8 Mbps, it’s nice to go with higher speeds around the campus, the home, and the office. IEEE 802.11ac took the Wi-Fi speed limit up to 1.3 Gbps, and the in-process standard, 802.11ax, aims to take it up to 10 Gbps.
As impressive as those numbers may be, our day-to-day experience with Wi-Fi often leaves a lot to be desired. The ultra-high speeds require the aggregation of multiple channels, where the disruption of one is a disruption to all.
High rate Wi-Fi also relies on 5.8 GHz frequencies, where several channels are hampered by extremely low transmit signal levels. At channel 36, the power limit is 12.5 mW, but channel 149 permits 50 mW, four times higher. And many of the high frequency channels are hampered by DFS requirements (related to military radar) that mandate less-than-ideal operation for Wi-Fi systems.
Muhammad Goes to the Mountain
As Francis Bacon said: “If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.” When Wi-Fi needs to use channels with strict power limits, the distance the transmitter can cover before its signal gets dirty is limited. Network design accommodates this by deploying multiple base stations. This isn’t strictly a “mesh” network, but it’s often called one.
Most suppliers of Wi-Fi routers now offer systems of multiple base stations that do just this. The best known is Eero, a system of three access points that relies on a cloud-based system for management.
Another, more advance system is the Linksys Velop. It sells for the same price as Eero, but is faster and easier to install. Velop comes with an installation aid that helps locate the spots with the best and worst signals.
Coordination and Backhaul
All of these systems have two key elements: coordination and backhaul. Coordination is the set of decisions among the access points about handling connections from mobile devices and setting signal levels and channel selections that produce the best results.
Backhaul is how the access points communicate their coordination decisions and end user data streams to each other. In general, backhaul can be wired, wireless on the same frequencies used by user devices, or dedicated backhaul.
Ideally, you want to use wired backhaul, but that’s not always practical. The next best thing is dedicated wireless backhaul, which is that the Velop does.
Nobody wants to have their ability to enjoy the benefits of new technology hampered by a clunky old network. The best way to stay ahead of the curve with IoT and AR is to keep the networks we control up to snuff.
A state-of-the-art Wi-Fi mesh network in the home or office is a relatively inexpensive investment that pays dividends in lack of headaches if nothing else.
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