Thursday, December 3, 2015

Blueprint: Is Wi-Fi Innovation Slowing Down?

by Jay Botelho, Director of Product Management for Savvius, Inc.

Wi-Fi technology has improved our daily lives in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. We routinely connect to our own personal digital universe from the comfort of our living room, while sitting at a local coffee shop, or even from the passenger seat of a new car. Yet for all of the amazing progress Wi-Fi has made over the years, are we witnessing the end of rapid WLAN innovation? Have we reached a point where ‘fast’ is fast enough? After all, it seems to take longer for organizations and even consumers to embrace each new iteration of this ubiquitous wireless standard.

No one would deny that Wi-Fi technology has come a long way since it burst onto the market fifteen years ago. In that relatively short period, Wi-Fi’s maximum data rate has increased by a factor of 150. For the sake of comparison, the original 802.11b standard had a maximum throughput of 11 megabits per second (Mbps), while the latest 802.11ac 4-stream client device has a throughput of 1.7 gigabits per second (Gbps), or 1,700 Mbps, an amazing improvement.

Tracking the Leaps in Wi-Fi Performance

After 802.11b came three major leaps in Wi-Fi technology: 802.11a/g in 2003; 802.11n in 2009; and 802.11ac in 2014. The improvements in speed, range and intelligence of each successive standard have been remarkable.

802.11a raised the maximum theoretical data rate from 11Mbps to 54 Mbps, and used the 5Ghz band to avoid the degradation issues commonly faced by 11b’s overcrowded 2.4GHz band. 11a also performs better in crowded indoor environments such as offices, though the signals are more easily absorbed by solid objects such as walls, giving them a shorter range.

802.11g, ratified in 2003, extended throughput to 54 Mbps in the 2.4GHz band by using some of the same orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) transmission technology found in 802.11a. Like 802.11b, 802.11g devices suffer from interference due to overcrowding of the 2.4GHz band from digital phones, microwave ovens, and other electronics such as Bluetooth devices.

The next major performance boost came in 2009 with the introduction of 802.11n. This standard uses both the 2.4 and 5GHz bands and multiple antennas to increase the maximum theoretical data rate to 600 Mbps. Now with four spatial streams at a channel width of 40 MHz, 11n supports features for better security and multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO).

802.11ac was announced with a lot of fanfare in early 2014, with the goal of providing data rates of up to 7 Gbps in the 5GHz band. In real environments that level of throughput is unrealistic, but getting 1.7 Gbps is entirely possible with a four-stream client device. The limiting factor with 802.11ac devices is usually the number of antennas. 11ac can support up to eight, each running at 400 Mbps. However, most routers only have four antennas and most devices have fewer than that. Smartphones with only one antenna, for example, will not be able to take advantage of an 802.11ac network’s capacity. Regardless, these speeds are much higher than almost all home broadband connections, and certainly higher than what was possible with 11n just a few years prior. The technology is here today – it’s just not being used to its full potential, yet.

The Proliferation of Wi-Fi into Everyday Devices

So if the advancement of the technology isn’t slowing down, why does progress sometimes seem to be faltering? There are multiple factors. One of the simplest reasons is that Wi-Fi is being embedded into so many products, from PCs to thermostats, that updating each of them to support a new standard is a massive undertaking. Add to that the need to ‘future-proof’ these products with features that may not be needed for a year or two, and the problem becomes more clear. With each successive new standard, products trickle onto the market slowly until production costs fall, but that doesn’t happen until economies of scale are reached. For all the speed offered by 802.11ac, there are still relatively few devices that take full advantage of it, and without those benefits it is hard to convince businesses or consumers to upgrade.

Each subsequent generation of Wi-Fi standards has run into initial obstacles that quickly yielded to astounding growth, and there is no reason to think that pattern will end soon. Once a technology is in place, innovative companies and consumer pressure soon find ways to exploit it, just as we saw with the explosive growth of WLAN innovation thanks to drivers such as 4K video streaming. The 802.11ax standard currently in development is expected to offer a theoretical 10 Gbps or higher. This has the potential to translate into real-world speeds higher than 2 Gbps. It will take a lot of creativity to use that bandwidth effectively, but it will happen. So, to answer my original question, “are we seeing the end of rapid WLAN innovation?” The answer, in my opinion, is a definite no.

About the Author
Jay Botelho is Director of Product Management for Savvius, Inc.

About Savvius

Savvius, Inc. brings 25 years as a leader in network performance and security forensics solutions to customers in more than 60 countries worldwide. Savvius's Omnipliance®, OmniPeek®, Savvius Insight™, and Savvius Vigil™ products enable network and security professionals to identify, understand, and respond to network performance issues and resolve security breaches quickly and comprehensively. Savvius customers include Apple, Boeing, Cisco, Fidelity, Microsoft, and over half of the Fortune 100. For more information, please visit www.savvius.com


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