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Wireless Beyond Wi-Fi: Trends to Watch

For more than a decade, the face of wireless has been IEEE 802.11 WLANs, your typical Wi-Fi networks prevalent in every home and business. In 2020 and beyond, the line is trending toward RF-based technologies departing from our common WLAN technologies. Tomorrow’s wireless networks will impact every organization and professional, as we work to incorporate, manage, and secure these deviant technologies. Convergence and Divergence of RF For those of us who have been deploying enterprise wireless for 15 or even 20 years, we’ve likely had glimpses of non-802.11 wireless. Not too long ago, we’d walk into a healthcare client and need to find the person responsible for managing the RF spectrum allocation. The various monitors and telemetry in hospitals typically ran on sub-1GHz RF spaces, well below the 2.5 and 5 GHz of today’s WLAN. It was a time when each system would own a little slice of the unlicensed RF pie, and it was someone’s job to keep up with it all, much like divvying up channels on the radio dial to the broadcasting stations in an area. Over the years, these systems started converging into the now prevalent 802.11 WLANs. Everything from those hospital monitors to industrial sensors and telemetry was soon attaching to 802.11 WLANs to streamline deployments and leverage existing architectures. Fast forward to today when we’re pushing organizations towards 5GHz WLANs to avoid the now overcrowded 2.4GHz spectrum, popular for more than a decade. It’s been a slow transition, with non-standard and legacy endpoints not updated to work with the latest WLAN technologies. The situation has created a mess, where legacy WLANs (often slower and less secure) must be supported. The outcome of which is an ever-increasing trend toward slower and less reliable WLANs as backward compatibility and legacy support slows the latest hot rod tech of Wi-Fi. The future of IoT and the pervasiveness of a hyperconnected world brings new use cases and needs for wireless technologies, and after more than a decade of convergence, we’re at the dawn of a trend the other way. IoT’s Role in Emerging Wireless It should be no surprise then that with the advent of IoT comes a fresh view of over-the-air communication and a new look at how best to meet the novel requirements of IoT while offering better reliability and considerations for IoT’s unique challenges. The reevaluation is driving towards a divergence in wireless, where we’re moving away from trying to use 802.11 WLANs for everything and devising novel ways to match the wireless technology to the communication needs. Convergence be darned, we’re trending towards best-of-breed tech. Our traditional Wi-Fi networks are best designed for traditional endpoints, things like laptops, tablets, and various types of phones. The security and authentication are a bit heavy (or “robust,” if you’re a “glass half full” person). WLANs are designed to work over a specific relatively short distance of maybe 10 to 150 feet from an AP. The bandwidth requirements have a broad range within the context of traditional endpoints but are designed primarily to accommodate higher and higher bandwidths to meet the needs of streaming media and data-mongering cloud-connected apps. But when we consider IoT devices, we’re looking at devices with drastically different requirements. They often need to transmit over kilometers or miles (not feet). The data they’re sending may be tiny packets of data, sent at scheduled times or as triggered by an action. The devices themselves are typically resource- and power-restricted, unable to participate in typical chatty Wi-Fi protocols. Use Cases for Non-802.11 Wireless
  • IoT devices with different needs than WLAN devices (sensors and collectors)
  • Mission-critical wireless wanting an uncrowded RF spectrum (action-centric IoT, nurse paging, health monitors)
  • Use cases supporting distances longer or shorter than WLANs (PANs, WANs)
  • Use cases supporting lower bandwidth requirements and/or low power requirements
3 Top Trends in 2020 The world of non-802.11 wireless is a sprawling spider web of layer 1, 2, and 3 protocols with overlap and entanglement. Here are a few high-level trends to keep an eye out for in 2020.
  1. Cellular-Based Trends
  • Private LTE. Private LTE uses cellular technology in licensed, unlicensed, and/or shared (CBRS) spectrums effectively offering an experience similar to Wi-Fi but with greater coverage areas, less crowded RF space, and technology capable of operating even in noisy (high RF noise floor) environments. It’s being positioned in manufacturing, industrial, and healthcare environments, among others.
  • CBRS. Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) is a US-specific implementation of Private LTE on the shared spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band.
  1. LPWANs (Low-Power WANs) Trends
Low power, wide-area networking (LPWAN) for connecting battery-powered IoT devices over long distances.
  • LoRa and LoRaWAN. LoRaWAN is low power, wide-area networking (LPWAN) protocol based on LoRa Technology (long-range RF) over unlicensed spectrum. It’s more common in Europe than the U.S. currently but offers a viable solution for regional and national connectivity for battery powered IoT devices.
  • Sigfox. Sigfox is a specific brand/provider of LPWAN technology creating wireless networks to connect low-power objects such as electricity meters and smartwatches, which need to be continuously on and emitting small amounts of data.
  1. IEEE 802.15.4-Based Trends
Technologies for low data rate wireless personal area networks (LR-WPANs) with multi-month to multi-year battery life and low complexity. It’s operating in an unlicensed, international frequency band. Potential applications are sensors, interactive toys, smart badges, remote controls, and home automation.
  • Zigbee and Z-Wave. These technologies are designed to work in the 10 to 30meter range for commercial and smart home applications of wirelessly connected devices. Zigbee is an open standard run by the Zigbee Alliance, whereas Z-Wave is run by Silicon Labs, which has stricter controls to make sure every Z-Wave device works with every Z-Wave controller.
  • Thread. Thread is a low power, secure, and internet-based mesh networking technology for home and commercial IoT products.
  • WirelessHART. WirelessHART is a wireless sensor networking technology based on the Highway Addressable Remote Transducer Protocol (HART), a hybrid analog/digital solution common in industrial systems, especially those transitioning to smart technologies.
These are just a few in the increasing field of non-802.11 wireless technologies we’re going to be dealing with in our organizations and communities.
Jennifer Minella
Jennifer Minella is VP of Engineering and Security with Carolina Advanced Digital, Inc. In her engineering role, Minella leads strategic research and consulting for government…
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