Everything You Need To Know About New Wi-Fi for the Internet of Things

January 4, 2016, 6:26 PM UTC
Glowing wifi icon in city street at night, London, UK
Cultura RM/J J D Getty Images/Cultura RM

Soon your new gadgets will come with a new flavor of Wi-Fi, the radio technology that allows your digital devices to connect to the Internet without blowing through your cellular data cap. This new version isn’t designed for these gadgets, however. Instead, it will be made for the network of connected devices in your home ― and even on your body ― that make up the Internet of Things.

The Wi-Fi Alliance calls this new standard Wi-Fi HaLow (pronounced halo), and says it doubles the distance and cuts the power consumption of traditional Wi-Fi. The Alliance would like to see Wi-Fi become a standard in smart cities where proprietary standards and cellular networks currently reign supreme, and in personal area networks for wearable devices where Bluetooth radios are used now.

So far, the Wi-Fi Alliance is being pretty vague on the details about the new standard in terms of how much power it will consume, how far it will travel, and how much data it will be able to transfer (and how quickly). It does say that the new standard will use the 900 megahertz spectrum, which is currently unlicensed and used by microwave ovens, baby monitors and all sorts of other wireless devices. This means Wi-Fi will now work in three bands; the 2.4 GHz band, the 5 GHz band and the 900 MHz band.

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However, HaLow only works in the 900 Mhz band and will do so primarily because that band is great for penetrating walls and going further. So that covers the ‘going the distance’ part, but the jury is still out on the power consumption part, which is where Wi-Fi has really suffered when it comes to the Internet of things. Many of these devices are powered only by batteries, and Wi-Fi is a notorious power suck, which means that most manufacturers don’t use it on sensors, wearables and other devices that don’t have room for a large battery, but are expected to last a long time without a recharge.

When HaLow was being developed around last year as 802.11ah (that’s the IEEE version of the standard as opposed to the Wi-Alliance brand), several engineers at chip companies expressed concern over its claims about being low power. “The Alliance is being a bit vague with the details so I’m a bit skeptical that they will hit their power and speed goals. Otherwise they would be touting the accomplishment,” says Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights and Strategy.

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It did, however, provide data rates for HaLow, which are between 150 kilobits per second and 18 megabits per second, which is much less than the traditional Wi-Fi rates (which are hitting up to a gigabit if the underlying broadband speeds are fast enough). Generally, you’ll see faster data rates at higher power consumptions and when there is less interference. Given the average home environment where 900 Mmz is the spectral equivalent of a Starbucks at 7AM those fast rates may prove difficult. Of course, with the Internet of Things, transmitting large amounts of data isn’t necessary, so that may not matter. Power consumption, reliability and distance could be more important.

The standard won’t be official until 2018, but devices will be out later this year. We’ll soon see how robust and useful Wi-Fi HaLow really is.

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