20 years of Wi-Fi: What's next for the wireless network?

20 years of Wi-Fi: What's next for the wireless network?

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Wi-Fi is one of the most fundamental parts of any network today, and has been for many years. But did you know 2019 actually makes the 20th anniversary of the technology?

While early versions of wireless protocols were around for a few years previously, it was in 1999 when the 802.11b standard was released, allowing speeds of up to 11Mbps and making wireless data transfer commercially feasible.

Since then, more than 30 billion Wi-Fi-enabled devices have shipped, and the global value of the market has reached more than $2 trillion (£1.63 trillion). But it shows no signs of slowing down and, in an age of smartphones and IoT devices, is set to be more important than ever in the coming years. 

Indeed, ABI Research forecasts that between 2019 and 2014, more than 20 billion more Wi-Fi devices are set to be shipped. But what's next for Wi-Fi in terms of improving the technology, and will it be displaced by something new and yet to emerge?

More spectrum bands to be utilised

One of the major focuses for Wi-Fi development is the opening up of more spectrum space, in particular the expected introduction of devices operating in the 6GHz band in the next couple of years.

Andrew Zignani, principal analyst at ABI Research, said that while there is a lot of work to be done from a regulatory perspective to enable this, the addition of up to 1.2GHz of additional spectrum that is not hindered by legacy Wi-Fi technologies could lead to an "unprecedented performance and capacity boost for Wi-Fi in the future".

Meanwhile, Wi-Fi is also set to expand into the 60GHz and sub-1GHz bands with WiGig and HaLow technology respectively. While progress towards these goals has been slower than with 6GHz bands, ABI Research forecast that these technologies will have a key role to play in the coming years.

Wi-Fi 6 and beyond

This year has also marked a major leap forward for Wi-Fi in other ways, especially with the introduction of the 802.11ax standard, or Wi-Fi 6. This new certification is the first major update to the technology since the release of the 802.11ac - now retroactively referred to as Wi-Fi 5 - in 2013, and promises a huge step forward in terms of speed, latency and bandwidth.

The first Wi-Fi 6-ready devices are starting to hit the market and should be uppermost in the thoughts of network managers. Mr Zignani said: "The need for faster, more reliable, more efficient and more widespread Wi-Fi coverage is becoming increasingly vital in a world filled with more Wi-Fi devices at both ends of the performance spectrum, from high resolution streaming and low latency gaming to battery constrained IoT devices."

One recent set of speed tests conducted by CNet noted claims that these devices will improve speeds by around 30 per cent compared with Wi-Fi 5 devices are accurate - but only tell part of the story.

Indeed, the publication said these comparisons are with the fastest-possible Wi-Fi 5 technology, which is not what most of us experience in the real world. The website stated: "The speed jumps are much, much more significant when you compare them to the average internet speeds that most of us are currently stuck with. Not 30 per cent faster, but 1,000 per cent faster." 

Working with other technologies?

While Wi-Fi is expected to remain a key networking technology for the foreseeable future, its dominance in the wireless market could be challenged in the coming years. Solutions such as indoor 5G could present a tempting opportunity to many businesses, particularly those that will need to run multiple high-speed, low-latency connections simultaneously.

Elsewhere, data transfer via the visible light spectrum, or Li-Fi, is also poised to become a commercially-viable option in the coming years. This is also promising to offer a faster alternative to Wi-Fi and is forecast to be especially useful in scenarios such as the education sector.

However, cost considerations may mean it is more practical in applications where normal Wi-Fi is less useful because of interference concerns, such as in hospitals, aeroplanes of sensitive industrial facilities. Therefore, it's more than likely in the coming years that this technology will find a place alongside Wi-Fi, with the two working to complement each other rather than compete directly.

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