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What's next for Wi-Fi? A second wave of 802.11ac devices, and then: 802.11ax

Eric Geier | July 8, 2014
Now that blazing-fast routers based on the IEEE 802.11ac standard are finally entering the mainstream, intrepid engineers are busily cooking up all-new hardware that will make that gear's performance seem quaint by comparison.

There are two major drawbacks to transmitting data at 60GHz: One is that the extremely short waves have difficulty penetrating walls. Another is that oxygen molecules begin to absorb electromagnetic energy at 60GHz.

That explains why the relatively few 60GHz products to reach the market so far are designed to operate at very short range, or within a single room. Dell's Wireless Dock 5000 is a good example of the former, and the DVDO Air — which streams HD audio and video from a Blu-ray player to a video projector without a cable — is a great example of the latter.

The Wi-Fi Alliance announced its 802.11ad certification program late last year. The group will stamp interoperable 802.11ad products as "WiGig Certified."

The IEEE 802.11ah standard, meanwhile, literally resides at the opposite end of the spectrum. Operating in the unlicensed 900MHz frequency band, a wireless network based on this would easily penetrate walls, but it wouldn't deliver a lot of bandwidth: anywhere from 100Kbps to 40Mbps. One use case might be for sensors and probes in connected home or commercial buildings, but the IEEE isn't expected to ratify the standard until January, 2016. 802.11ah could be considered a competitor to the Z-Wave and ZigBee protocols in the Internet of Things space.

What with 802.11ac, -ad, and -ax, the future of Wi-Fi looks a lot like alphabet soup. But it's really the evolution of Wi-Fi into standards that fit the demands of new generations of wirelessly connected devices. When those new generations contain everything from enterprise printers to egg timers, you can bet there'll be needs for all the flavors of Wi-Fi coming down the pike.


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