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IEEE reveals 802 standards process and the future of Wi-Fi

The IEEE 802 Standards Committee looks years in advance to improve Wi-Fi and Ethernet technology. A sampling of the future: 802.11be, Wi-Fi sensing and increased Ethernet range.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has spearheaded the development of IEEE 802 standards since 1980. In the past 40 years, IEEE has introduced and enhanced myriad capabilities and techniques related to Ethernet and Wi-Fi.

With each official standard launch, however, comes years of development and back-and-forth discussion. While this process is time-consuming, it's necessary to pinpoint relevant standards, according to Paul Nikolich, chairman of the IEEE 802 LAN/MAN Standards Committee and IEEE fellow.

Before greenlighting a new standards project, the 802 committee uses certain criteria to assess project proposals, Nikolich said. These factors include considerations about production costs, technical feasibility, commercial viability and market relevance. If a proposed project proves to be in demand, IEEE moves forward with development, assessing which capabilities and features are necessary.

Most projects add capabilities to an existing standard and share common goals for increased capacity, higher range and reduced power consumption. But it can be challenging for members to reach agreement on the desired specifications. As a result, years can pass before a standard is officially ratified.

"It goes back and forth a lot for a very long time," Nikolich said. "In order for things to move forward, we need 75% consensus [among members], and that's a pretty high bar."

The future of Wi-Fi: 802.11be and Wi-Fi sensing

The 802.11 wireless standards are no strangers to this back-and-forth volley, averaging five or six years between each major Wi-Fi generation, Nikolich said. The latest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ax, has been through a seven-year development journey, with an expected ratification date of October 2020.

Paul NikolichPaul Nikolich

But this timeline hasn't stalled the Wi-Fi market. Vendors have already released Wi-Fi products that support 802.11ax. Further, in September 2019, the Wi-Fi Alliance -- a liaison organization with IEEE -- launched a certification program for 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6, devices.

"Usually there are way more features in [an IEEE] draft than people need to roll out a viable product," Nikolich said. "The Wi-Fi Alliance will take a draft and decide a subset of the features in the draft standard it feels is important for market viability."

After the Wi-Fi Alliance determines the necessary features and tests interoperability, it provides certification for the minimum set of features, he added. For 802.11ax, those features include increased access point (AP) spatial streams and orthogonal frequency-division multiple access, which helps optimize bandwidth use.

Wi-Fi standard development
Use this Wi-Fi timeline to track the process of developing an 802 standard.

But IEEE is already looking ahead to the next iteration of Wi-Fi standards, 802.11be, which Nikolich said will ideally be ready by 2027. This standard will focus on increased throughput, efficient use of spectrum and AP control enhancements.

While 802.11ax is expected to reach throughput of 1 to 2 Gbps, 802.11be should reach a target throughput of 10 Gbps, Nikolich said. This increase is possible through capabilities such as beam steering, which enables APs to direct their energy in a particular direction for more efficient transmission and reception.

The 802 Standards Committee is also developing Wi-Fi sensing technology, which detects an object's location and motion by analyzing the Wi-Fi energy in a room, Nikolich said.

"This is an exciting new area for 802, which is not communications-based," he said. Instead of relying on data transmission between location-enabled devices -- such as beacon technology that pushes coupon offers to shoppers in a retail environment -- Wi-Fi sensing identifies movement patterns.

"It sounds a little creepy, but all it knows is there's an object that has been uniquely identified and typically has this particular movement pattern," Nikolich said. "When it strays outside that movement pattern, you can alert whoever wants to be alerted about changes."

This capability opens a new set of Wi-Fi use cases, he added. For example, Wi-Fi sensing could be used to monitor an independent elderly person to track a potential fall or stop of movement. It could also provide presence detection in vehicles to alert someone if a child or pet has been left alone in a car.

The future of Ethernet: Increased range, lower speeds

Some of the IEEE's most revolutionary work, according to Nikolich, has focused on 802.3 standards for Ethernet, specifically with twisted pair. Thirty years ago, Nikolich worked on the first twisted pair physical layer interface, which used the existing wiring in buildings.

In the past, the trend has been higher speed, higher speed, higher speed.
Paul NikolichIEEE chairman of 802 Standards Committee and IEEE fellow

"It was revolutionary because you didn't have to change your physical infrastructure to deploy networking capability in buildings; you could use the wiring that was in place," he said. "In 1990, that was the step up that enabled Ethernet to essentially become the winner of the wired networking technologies."

And the enhancements haven't stopped, as the committee continues to improve bandwidth capabilities for twisted pair and fiber optic technology. Interestingly, however, Nikolich said some vertical industries have called for a decrease in speeds and an increase in range.

"Factory automation and the automotive industry realize they don't necessarily need 10 Gbps, but they'd prefer longer reach," he said. "Instead of 100 meters, go a kilometer and have multidrop capability so you can connect to multiple pieces of equipment."

This capability to connect multiple sensors or devices would benefit distributed IoT environments that don't require high speeds. For example, data rates could plummet to as low as 10 Mbps, Nikolich said.

"In the past, the trend has been higher speed, higher speed, higher speed," he said. "Now, we've reached the point where people are saying, 'Let's extend the range dimension on the wired side and accept lower speed to get the increased range.'"

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